Eastern Orthodoxy and the Apostle Paul: Where is Justification by Faith?

[This series has been revised and republished. It can be found here.]

Where is justification by faith in Eastern soteriological reflection? It’s a curious omission, given that justification is a critical theme in the epistles of the Apostle Paul. How does one preach on the Epistle to the Romans without speaking of justification? If the Apostle’s understanding of justification is governed exclusively by the question “Are the works of Torah binding on the (Gentile) Church?” then I suppose it’s understandable why justification has ceased to have any homiletical or theological function within Orthodoxy. By the 4th and 5th centuries the Church had become a Gentile community and deification had established itself as the preferred way in the Eastern Church to speak of salvation in Christ.

Yet I still find it a curious omission. I am well aware that St Paul’s understanding of justification is identical neither to the Reformation nor the Tridentine understanding of justification; but one might think that with all the recent converts into Orthodoxy from Protestantism, as well as growing awareness by Orthodox priests and scholars of the large body of Pauline scholarship, someone would have attempted a constructive integration of justification into the Orthodox understanding of salvation. But that does not appear to have happened. Justification simply does not exist in Orthodox theology as a topic of serious reflection, and even when it does appear, it is immediately dismissed as a Western problematic (see, e.g., Valerie Karras, “Beyond Justification“; also see Carmen Fragapane, “Salvation by Christ” for a somewhat more sympathetic presentation). Does justification matter?

Orthodox theologian Lucian Turcescu believes that it does matter. In his essay “Soteriological Issues in the 1999 Lutheran-Catholic Joint Declaration on Justification,” Turcescu argues that Orthodoxy should explicitly integrate justification as the first step in its ordo salutis, with deification being the second and final step. Turcescu complains that Orthodox theologians jump too hastily to the second step: before deification there must be justification, the reconciliation of the sinner with his former enemy, God.

Turcescu begins with the Gospel of John. Jesus speaks of the reconciliation between God and humanity as occurring in two steps. First, Jesus calls his hearers out of their bondage to sin and makes them his friends. Second, having become his friends, they become, with him, children of the Father:

In the Gospel according to John, Jesus spoke of two steps toward the full restoration of the broken relationship between humans and God. In their fallen state, humans find themselves in bondage to sin, and Jesus calls humans slaves or servants at this point; then, humans become Jesus’ friends; last, they are said to be adopted by God the “Father” as children. There is thus a progression from a state of bondage, ignorance, and fear that characterizes the master-slave relationship to the state of discipleship that characterizes the friendship state to that of filial knowledge and love that characterizes the parent-child relationship. The passage from bondage to friendship occurs because of reconciliation, as an enemy cannot become one’s friend unless the two have been reconciled. The passage from friendship to adoption occurs by divine initiative and human cooperation. (Journal of Ecumenical Studies [Winter 2001], p. 69)

Turcescu suggests that the Apostle Paul also sees salvation as a two-step process, correlated with justification and adoption: “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption” (Rom 8:14-15).

I suspect that those who are well read in Johannine and Pauline studies will find the above analysis seriously flawed. Is it really accurate to speak of a two-step process, as if one first is reconciled to God (justification) and then one becomes a son of God in Christ (adoption)? Though I have been away from biblical scholarship a long time, this just does not sound right to me. Part of the problem is that Turcescu is thinking in terms of “process,” which is unavoidable when one wants to speak of synergistic cooperation with grace (always the preferred Orthodox way of looking at these matters), rather than as divinely-effected translation into an eschatological mode of existence. I note the striking absence of Holy Baptism in Turcescu’s analysis. For the Apostle Paul baptism marks the decisive act in and by which the sinner is incorporated into Christ and his Church and thus justified, sanctified, reborn in the Spirit, and adopted as a son of God (see Rudolf Schnackenburg, Baptism in the Thought of St. Paul). When I was preaching, one of my favorite texts was Galatians 3:21-4:7:

Is the law then against the promises of God? Certainly not; for if a law had been given which could make alive, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. But the scripture consigned all things to sin, that what was promised to faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.

Now before faith came, we were confined under the law, kept under restraint until faith should be revealed. So that the law was our custodian until Christ came, that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a custodian; for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.

I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no better than a slave, though he is the owner of all the estate; but he is under guardians and trustees until the date set by the father. So with us; when we were children, we were slaves to the elemental spirits of the universe. But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So through God you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son then an heir.

Holy Baptism represents the decisive event in which the convert to Christ is initiated into the Church and the trinitarian life of God. It’s not as if one is first justified and then subsequently adopted as a child of God and made heir to the kingdom. It all happens at the same time! As the Apostle tells his congregation in Corinth: “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor 6:11). The Spirit breaks into our fallen world and appropriates us to the life and worship of the messianic kingdom. Only on this basis does our liturgical prayer and ascetical practices make proper sense.

But back to Turcescu:

The Greek patristic tradition and Orthodox theology have referred to human participation in the divine nature as deification (theosis), and that has become the fundamental metaphor expressing salvation in the Orthodox Church. The passage from bondage to sin to friendship with God necessitates a reconciliation between humans and God. One cannot become a friend with a former enemy unless the two have been reconciled. It is at this point that I see justification taking place, that is, the declaration by God of the sinful human person as a righteous person because of the faith a human has in Jesus and his work of redemption done freely on behalf of all humanity. (p. 70)

Perhaps Turcescu presupposes baptism as that moment when God declares justification—I presume that he does. Justification thus signifies the beginning of the deification process; but after that, does it have any other function? We are still stuck with preaching the Epistle to the Romans. Might justification be more than a two-step dance?

(Go to “Justifying Justification by Faith“)

This entry was posted in Apostle Paul, Grace, Justification & Theosis and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to Eastern Orthodoxy and the Apostle Paul: Where is Justification by Faith?

  1. Rhonda says:

    Thanks for this article. Yes, the Protestant penchant to reduce everything to a process of the bare bones minimum essentials in order to be saved (instantly)! For me Turcescu’s argument creates far more questions (problems) than it answers. As I was reading the Turcescu quote, I kept wondering, “Ok, so just when does God start loving the sinner?” Can we have a “class” of beings that is justified but not adopted? Can we attain to the level of justification without attaining the level of adoption? If so, just when “are we saved?” to borrow from a frequent Protestant question. After justification? Or after adoption? Further, just how do we know that we have attained either one or both of these levels? Eesh! I could go on, but I think my point has been made. Ironically, the only “good idea” I see in his perspective is that this two-step process soundly refutes “instant salvation”.

    IMO (for what that’s worth) God is never in a Master/slave (nor Enemy/enemy!) relationship with anyone or any thing; it is man that enslaves (both himself as well as others). The relationship is Uncreated Creator vs. created creatures; & when discussing salvation this is where we need to start…not with God as Master (& often an angry Master) & ourselves as slaves. A master may or may not love his slaves; but a father…now he loves his children absolutely, even the misbehaving ones. Just my 2 bits….


    • It’s quite possible that Turcescu is thinking of “logical” priority in his ordo salutis rather than temporal priority. But even so, this does not address the important concerns of the Reformation. Yes, I do believe that the Reformation presents concerns that need to be eventually addressed by Orthodoxy. 🙂


      • Rhonda says:

        Ref: “logical” priority
        I agree with you on that Fr. A. Many of the Protestant academics (i.e. those that try to think deeper about their faith) use such reasoning in the discussions I have experienced. I also know that many make the same accusation against the Orthodox when they deny/refute the topics of God’s energy/essence & created/uncreated grace. As I asked one evangelical when he once explained to me the “logical” priority in his argument was not a “real” nor
        “true” priority, “Then why have we wasted time discussing what is not ‘real’ & therefore not ‘true’? A false dichotomy is still a false dichotomy no matter how much ‘logic’ we throw at it.”

        I think the main difference is that the Orthodox are not afraid to “punt to ‘Mystery'” as I heard one AFR guest say recently. When we do this though the other side views our claim of “Mystery!” as an attempt to side-step logic & rationalization, while what we mean is that it is unknowable & outside the bounds of logic & rationalization. This is just not “politically correct” thinking in the Protestant world where the individual can figure it out for him/her-self 😉 He’s God! No, you can’t!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. PJ says:

    From my study of Reformed theology, I’ve concluded that our fundamental difference concerns the very rationale behind creation and redemption. According to the Reformed, God creates and redeems so as to show forth His whole “range” of attributes, and in doing so, glorify Himself. The entire economy of creation and redemption is concerned with God’s magnification of His own excellence. On the other hand, the catholic, orthodox faith maintains that God creates and redeems so as to share His love, for His very nature is self-giving. He is indeed interested in His own glorification, but this glorifications occurs precisely in His redemption of all creation. Does this make sense?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Rhonda says:

      Actually, PJ, it does make sense 🙂 The difference is how the Creation & also the Fall stories in the 1st 3 chapters of Genesis are “interpreted”. The Reformed group, from which I came, hardly ever views God as Father when reading the OT canon. I heard many sermons growing up that God only “became” our Father at the time of Christ’s Incarnation. That just didn’t square at the time with the other sermons that God doesn’t change; but now I’m sure that the “change” was just a “logical” priority 😛


  3. PJ says:

    If I am correct, then Reformed Christianity, insofar as it is voluntaristic and radically theocentric, bears a startling resemblance to Islam. Indeed, it is no doubt the fruit of Islamic influence on Christianity. This Islamic influence is also manifest in its quasi-Nestorianism, iconoclasm, puritanism, and anti-sacramentalism.


    • Rhonda says:

      I’m beginning to hear this train of thought more & more from RC & EO alike. I don’t know if I buy into it or not at this time as there just has not been enough study to substantiate such claims one way or another. I am still of the opinion that the Reformation was in rejection (ultimately, not originally by Luther) to all things “seemingly” RC. Also, the rejection quickly spread to include rejection of the monarchies throughout Europe. The whole move was to instill power & authority to the individual human of the lower classes (or so the claim of those vying for power in the newly created political voids would have us believe). These 2 issues would explain why the Reformers also rejected EO which, while EO was relatively unheard of, it was not totally unknown. I’m not saying that there could not have been an Islamic influence, but I think that it is premature at this time to declare such an influence to such a large degree.


  4. - says:

    Since becoming Orthodox, my understanding has been that justification and sanctification are essentially the same thing. Both are a part of the process of salvation. Our justification, i.e. righteousness, is not merely declared, but becomes actual as we are joined to God in Christ.


    • Karen says:

      I’m with you, says.

      I understand wanting to interface with Western theology for outreach sake, but this whole discussion sounds to me from an Orthodox perspective like asking which came first, the chicken or the egg. It seems to me these are just two aspects of the same ontological “thing”. Might it be also fruitful to relate the language of our justification/sanctification as process to the classic patristic paradigm of purification, illumination, theosis? It seems to me that to an extent all three of these latter processes are ongoing in the life of the believer also and their proportions in a particular person’s life related to their level of maturity in Christ–but even that may be approaching the mystery of salvation in Christ too rationalistically.


      • “Might it be also fruitful to relate the language of our justification/sanctification as process to the classic patristic paradigm of purification, illumination, theosis?”

        Isn’t that what Turcescu is attempting to do?

        But I don’t want to anticipate my future articles in this series (which will not be very deep, as I am to a large extent parasitically relying on reading and reflection that predates 2007). I think what I want to say is that if justification is understood as a moment in a process, it doesn’t have a lot to say to us; but if it is understood as simultaneously our forgiving acceptance by God and our incorporation into the trinitarian life, i.e., as the gift of eschatological existence, then it may well transform everything we think about life in the Spirit.


      • Rhonda says:

        “Might it be also fruitful to relate the language of our justification/sanctification as process to the classic patristic paradigm of purification, illumination, theosis?”

        Orthodoxy traditionally has done (basically) this with its belief of salvation as a journey to be experienced, but this journey cannot be reduced to a mere process as if it were a step-by-step procedure to be followed. Before my husband & I go on a trip (journey) we logically think it out & organize the various aspects of the trip (lodging, eating, driving, cost, timing, alternative contingencies) in a very systematic fashion. But this “systematic thinking” does not make it a process of eating, lodging, driving…; it remains a journey in which we desire to experience something, some place or someone. The rest just gets us there efficiently, effectively & hopefully at the proper time, but such things are not the point or purpose of the journey. I feel that Turcescu’s perspective comes perilously close to usurping the true purpose & understanding of the journey of salvation which is experience of God by union with God.

        I like your use of paradigm regards patristics. I will forward perhaps what may be considered a nit-picky point about “purification”. In the Fathers I think a more proper word might be regeneration. Regeneration (making new) is not necessary for purification (making clean), while purification is necessary for regeneration. There are numerous writings of the Fathers that speak of the “Laver of Regeneration” (Baptism) which simultaneously purifies & illumines as it regenerates. Most Protestant theology seems to focus almost exclusively on purification by ignoring (at least) or denying (at worst) regeneration & illumination. The follow on question that is begged by the use of regeneration is “Regenerated from what into what?” Regeneration requires an ontological context while mere purification does not IMO.


      • Karen says:

        Forgive me, Father–I suppose that is what Turcescu is attempting to do if you understand by the term “theosis” a kind of shorthand for that whole paradigm (which it is, of course), but I didn’t see an actual reference to the language of “purification,” “illumination” invoked in this post which is why posted what I did. I was really just sort of thinking “aloud,” not coming to any conclusions (too ignorant for that!). I would say in considering this question in the past few years since I became Orthodox, what I have surmised is that biblical justification is pretty much what you have posited it to be from an Orthodox perspective (i.e., a process). I have understood it as progressively being put in a right (i.e, reconciled, reconnected, life-giving) orientation to God (Rhonda’s preference for the language of “regeneration” over “justification” seems appropriate, too), while our sanctification I have understood as the transfiguration of our being that results from that reconnection. But when I think about it very much, it is very hard to say exactly how these are two different things. They seem more to be just different metaphors or aspects of the same ontological “thing.” That’s how I end up concluding it feels overly rationalistic to try to parse out too much.


      • Karen, you need never ask my forgiveness for expressing your opinion. I sure ain’t no theological authority! On this forum we are all travelers on the way. 🙂

        And you are right. Turcescu does not explicitly coordinate justification with the purification-illumination-theosis paradigm. It would be fruitful to relate the language of justification/sanctification (and adoption) to this paradigm, as you have begun to do. And perhaps we shouldn’t try to be too systematic, as you rightly suggest.

        One thought: justification and adoption seem to suggest a change in ontological status or being. Does that sound right? I am most curious with how adoption relates to theosis. To be adopted as a son in the Son is to be incorporated into the trinitarian life of God.

        Keep up the good work.


    • Karen says:

      Thank you, Father, for the rich material for thought (and opinion!) you continue to generate for us. I really appreciate it (as well as the comments of other contributors).

      Justification, sanctification, illumination, adoption, regeneration . . . and the list goes on. The Tradition has certainly given us many richly varied metaphors by which we may begin to approach the Mystery of our incorporation into Christ. I will be happy if the labors of others to delve more deeply into the language of the Scriptures vis-a-vis other Christian traditions and the fullness of the faith expressed and experienced in the Orthodox tradition allow others to experience that Mystery in greater depth. I don’t possess the expertise or the time to figure all that out myself, but I look forward to continuing to digest the work of others (like you and Fr. Stephen Freeman) spoon fed in small bits like this. If it is somewhat predigested for this “little birdie,” all the better! 🙂


  5. Rhonda says:

    One thing I “missed” before making my first comment was that Turcescu is Orthodox rather than Protestant. His comments are so reminiscent of Protestant thought that I forgot that little fact. I really hope that his attempts to jive Orthodoxy with non-Orthodox groups is in the spirit of ecumenical outreach rather than a paradigm-shift in Orthodox theology. Otherwise I would find his comments very disturbing to say the least; as they stand they make me uncomfortable.

    The Truth of Christ is not served by the incorporation of non-Orthodox false dichotomies, logical priorities, into Orthodox theology. Orthodox theology is dogmatic, not systematic. The Orthodox belief that salvation/theosis is a journey does not mean that it should be systematicized into a process in order to make it palatable to the non-Orthodox or to attract converts. To do so only serves to reduce Orthodoxy from the Fullness of Truth to just another relative truth among the ten of thousands already out there.


  6. PJ says:


    I’d be interested to see you consider the pronouncements of Trent regarding justification.

    “Justification … is not remission of sins merely, but also the sanctification and renewal of the inward man, through the voluntary reception of the grace, and of the gifts, whereby man of unjust becomes just, and of an enemy a friend, that so he may be an heir according to hope of life everlasting” (Chapter VII).


    • Back in 2006 I began to reflect explicitly on Trent and the Catholic formulation of justification. I don’t know how much worth there is in these reflections, but you may want to take a look at what I wrote seven years ago (you’ll need to scroll down a bit). Also see, especially see, my article “The Grand Question.”

      Please don’t hold me to what I wrote back then. I was told by more than one Catholic after my conversion to the Catholic Church that I was too Lutheran to be Catholic, that the Lutheran/Catholic Agreement on Justification did not enjoy magisterial status and did not faithfully reflect the Catholic teaching. After reading the folks at Called to Communion, as well as Christopher Malloy’s book on the subject, I suspect they are right.


  7. PJ says:

    It’s strange: Many modern Catholics seem quite uncomfortable — even embrassed — by their Augustinian heritage. They are scandalized to find justification by faith alone, perseverance, and predestination throughout the mainstream of Catholic teaching, from Thomas Aquinas to Thomas Bradwardine.


    • PJ, in his book The Grace of Christ Henri Rondet argues that with the condemnation of Jansenism, the Catholic Church has been engaged in a “gradual purification of the Augustinian theology of limited predestination.” Given the emphatic magisterial teaching that God desires the salvation of all, it’s hard to see the CC ever turning back to Augustine on this matter.


  8. Rhonda says:

    St. Augustine was the beginning of a paradigm shift in the West that was highly influenced by the political & social environment. He himself was & is still considered Orthodox; hence he is venerated in the East, but he put forth many novel ideas for his time. To put it simply he merely laid out a lot of dots that others connected later. They in turn left unconnected dots that the Protestant Reformers yet again connected leading eventually to ideas such as the 5 Solas & T-U-L-I-P.

    The East also had their theologians that put forth ideas similar to St. Augustine, however in the East there were 4 other Sees to keep any of them from becoming dominant. Also the political & social environment was much different until the tide of Islam swept through. Ironically, the immigration of EO refugees into the West due to Islam’s advance helped fuel & trigger the Renaissance, for which the framework & mindset was already in place.

    St. Augustine was not a bad guy 🙂 But like any theologian his writings need to be read with discernment in light of Church doctrine as no one writes infallibly or inerrantly all of the time. Far too frequently, RC & EO alike seem to put on blinders when it comes to the writings of the Church Fathers…if St. So-&-So wrote it, then it must be valid & therefore believed as doctrine. Protestants also do this with many of their more famous theologians as well. I do find it quite ironic that many Protestants love to quote St. Augustine in support of their rejection of the Church, Priesthood, sacraments & etc. while failing to realize that he would have been appalled by their conclusions! After all, he was a bishop; & a very popular bishop at that!


    • On this theme of justification, St Augustine’s tract “On the Letter and the Spirit” is valuable and essential reading. The Reformers relied on Augustine heavily, but they departed from him on justification. Alister McGrath has described his view as a justification by indwelling Love.


  9. PJ says:

    “And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day … No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day.”

    What do you think of these verses? I’ve always found them a powerful defense of predestination and perseverance.


    • “What do you think of these verses (John 6:39-40, 44)? I’ve always found them a powerful defense of predestination and perseverance.”

      Here’s my take…
      This section is not that powerful of a defense for predestination, actually quite the contrary when v. 45 is also considered. Actually as far as this passage is concerned, one would benefit by reading the paragraph from v. 35-45. As far perseverance goes, there are much better passages than this section [Psalms 88(89), Heb 10, 2nd Thes 2-3, Jude 17-23].

      Several Scriptures tell us that all things have been given over to Christ, the Son of God. (Matt. 11:27; Luke 10:22; John 3:35, 5:20; [Heb. 2:8] ) Thus, all are Christ’s to begin with from the Father & Christ will not reject what the Father has given Him.

      Regarding the v. 39-40: These verses teach us about the will of the Father, the same will as the Son & Holy Spirit. Ezek 18:23 also tells us that God does not desire (will) the death of the sinner, but rather that he turn from his evil ways & do rightly. Ezekiel alone refutes any attribution of predestination here.

      Specifically to v. 40 & 44: I cannot begin to remember how many “heated discussions” my husband & I have had over 20+ years where one of us stated, “But I didn’t say that! I said…” Our human reasoning tends to do the same with Scripture. It wants to turn these verses around from what they say/mean explicitly to something they do not say/mean, i.e. that if someone does not come to Christ then it is because God willed for them to reject Christ (IOW God has predestined them to hell). All that is said is that no one can come to Christ without being led by the Father; IOW we mortals cannot attain salvation on our own…it is the grace of God, a grace that is available to all. The opposite implicit “reasoning” that God the Father does not lead everyone to Christ does not necessarily hold true. Actually, this “logic flip” is very wrong as Christ’s words in the next verse show:

      v. 45: It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Therefore everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to Me.

      The OT citation is from Isaiah 54:13. This verse declares that God teaches (or reveals Himself) to all, not just a chosen few. Anyone who has attended any type of schooling for very long knows that the teacher teaches all students in the class, but not all students learn from her. Due to our sinfulness it is possible to not learn what God teaches or not see what He reveals. All are taught (led) by God, but not all follow after God.

      I quickly scanned through several works by St. Augustine on this section & found no allusions to predestination; however, please notice the word “quickly”…The same goes for St. John Chrysostom’s commentary on this passage. Also FWIW, none of my various Scripture translations note anything about predestination in their supporting commentary.


  10. Rhonda says:


    Keep “thinking out loud” 🙂 You have good thoughts!


Comments are closed.