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

Where is justification by faith in Orthodox theology and preaching? Absolutely nowhere at all. It just doesn’t make an appearance. It’s a curious omission, given the importance of justification by faith in the epistles of the Apostle Paul. How does one preach on Galatians or Romans without proclaiming it? Its absence suggests that the doctrine is deemed pastorally irrelevant. If Paul’s formulation of justification by faith is governed by the question “Are the works of Torah binding on Gentile believers?” then his answer must disappear once the question disappears—and disappear it did. By the fourth and fifth centuries, Christians no longer worried about keeping kosher. When St Augustine of Hippo recovered for the Latin Church the language of justification, he was driven by very different concerns, while in the East deification established itself as the preferred way to speak of salvation in Christ. Justification by faith simply has no place in Orthodoxy: there’s no theological work for it to do.1

Orthodox theologian Lucian Turcescu, however, believes that justification by faith needs to be recovered. 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.2

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 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)? 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 divine act in and by which the sinner is incorporated into Christ and his Church and thus justified, sanctified, regenerated in the Spirit, and adopted as a son of God.3 When I was preaching regularly, 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.

In baptism the convert to Christ is initiated simultaneously into the Church and the trinitarian life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It’s not as if one is first justified and then subsequently adopted as a child of God and made an 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 Kingdom. Only on this basis does the liturgical prayer and ascetical practices of the Church 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.4

Does Turcescu’s proposal make preaching the Epistle to the Romans any easier? I suspect not. Does St Paul actually teach an ordo salutis? I suspect not. Will it restore justification by faith to the Orthodox Church? Again, I suspect not. A bit more thought is necessary.

(31 May 2013; rev.)


[1] When justification is discussed by Orthodox writers, it is typically dismissed as a Western problematic: e.g., Valerie Karras, “Beyond Justification.” Carmen Fragapane offers a more sympathetic appraisal in his article “Salvation by Christ.”

[2] Lucian Turcescu, Journal of Ecumenical Studies (Winter 2001): 69.

[3] See Rudolf Schnackenburg, Baptism in the Thought of St. Paul, G. R. Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the New Testament, and Edmund Schlink, The Doctrine of Baptism.

[4] Turcescu, p. 70.

(Go to “Justifying Justification”)

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

  1. joel in ga says:

    A Roman Catholic-leaning friend and I, a Lutheran at the time, once debated justification between ourselves. I realized that justification drew in so many other issues that it was necessary to limit the discussion, with its attendant exasperation, to justification’s central feature, viz., the forgiveness of sins. Here I find that Orthodoxy has much to say beyond the simple statement in the baptismal liturgy that the baptizand is justified. In a more recent discussion with a Reformed friend who challenged me on the Orthodox doctrine of justification, I cited the noontime prayer, “by His precious Cross [our Lord] destroyed the record of our sins.” Here, by implication at least, is as full and complete an affirmation of justification as any Lutheran could hope for.

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  2. johnstamps2020 says:

    The first problem with “justification by faith” is the sheer ambiguity in the word “justification.” We use two English words to translate δικαιοσύνη – “justice” (a legal word) and “righteousness” (a religious word). How differently we might view the Sermon on the Mount if we read “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after justice?” Maybe we use a neologism – “justice-fying” and “justice-ification.”
    The second problem is the phrase “by faith.” When we use any of the πίστις and πίστ- roots, surely we don’t merely mean re-arranging the mental furniture between our ears.
    – Do we mean we are justicified by our faith?
    – Or is the faith better understood as the faithfulness of Christ? That’s how Luke Timothy Johnson and Richard Hays think we should understand the key phrase in Romans, Galatians, and Philippians – we are made righteous by the faithfulness of Christ. Well, the faith of Christ makes us just and righteous.

    Better yet, maybe we all become US Marines and think both Jesus Christ and us are to be “semper fi” – always faithful. There we recover the Latin root of faith and faithfulness – fidelity.

    Or best of all, we become like Horton the Elephant in Horton Hatches the Egg:
    “I meant what I said and I said what I meant. An elephant is faithful 100 percent.”
    That’s good enough for any Christian.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve met the “two-stage process” idea in various terms, often spoken as “first justification, then sanctification.” My answer to it remains the same as ever: if God declares one just, then one is just for God’s declaration – His word – is truth. I think the error comes of trying to fit things into a time-based process (which is a natural fault, since most of our experience is through the lens of time-based processes), while these things have the element of eternity to them – God’s action and our response, the co-operation of the Divine and the human cannot be neatly separated, as can, say, the operation of two members of a team in most human activities. God is in us and we are in Him. Reconciliation and deification are not different; how could they be when our greatest “offense” is the effacement of the Divine Image in us? If we must be reconciled with God to partake of His divinity, so we must partake of His divinity to be reconciled with Him, for it falling short of His glory that has been our sin.

    Great article!


  4. Pretty Lamb says:

    I think what Luther was driving at with “justification by faith”, was that God first of all enters into a relationship and communion with us as we are, logically prior to any work of sanctification. To put it in modern language, God is “accepting” or “accepting of who we are”, and has an “unconditional love” for us.

    In other words, our fundamental relationship with God is based on our faithful desire to be with Him, to know Him, to love Him, regardless of how fallen we might be in our present circumstances. Essentially, Luther was reacting to and trying to get away from the late medieval/scholastic spirituality of (a) intense perfectionism as regards the (Aristotelian) “virtues” (b) intense fear of eternal damnation and the feeling that a single mortal sin makes one infinitely loathsome to God. In those conditions, Luther could not find a way to even BEGIN a peaceful, loving relationship with God, until he accepted that God approaches him first through faith… Although Luther is in the Augustinian tradition, he is actually trying to work his way out of its darkest spiritual consequences.

    If “justification by faith” does not appear in the East, it’s possibly because the fear of God and the morbid awareness of sin did not reach the fever pitch it did in the West.

    I do in fact believe that Paul (another highly scrupulous conscience) was talking about this on some level (contrary to DBH who holds the opinion that Paul is only talking about the works of the mere ceremonial law); I do think that Luther rediscovered some essential part of Pauline theology, mainly through his intense spiritual experience.

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  5. Iain Lovejoy says:

    If I understand correctly, the “justification” concerned is “imputed” righteousness: the person concerned is not actually righteous but imputed so because “faith”. My understanding is that this is a notion foreign to eastern Orthodoxy (and although not eastern Orthodox myself, I would agree that this is a silly idea).
    However, as a (sort of) Protestant (I’m an Anglican) I feel “justification by faith” ought to be in there somewhere, so I can’t resist putting my tuppence-worth in.
    If an object is moving from point A to point B, there are two things you can say about it: where it is on the way and the direction and speed of its travel. It seems to me that “faith”, if it is anything, is less a point on the journey of salvation and more the motive force by which we travel along the path in the first place: how are we to travel towards God if we do not trust that the journey is one we ought to and are prepared to take? It also seems to me that the “justification” referred to in “justification by faith” must surely therefore refer to the fact that one is “justified” by being embarked on the journey and proceeding in the right direction, not how far one has got.
    I am not a preacher but it seems to me that one can and should preach “justification by faith” if by it one means that our assurance of salvation lies in our trust in God and willingness to follow, not any particular present level of piety, knowledge or holiness we have reached.


  6. johnstamps2020 says:

    This just popped into my mailbox this morning. Per Paula Fredricksen:
    “Three Protestant Pauls, a Catholic Paul, and a Jewish Paul all walk into one volume–and collegial colloquy ensues. The scholars assembled here communicate the key issues, arguments, and interpretations that currently shape our highly charged moment in Pauline studies.”
    We Orthodox aren’t even on the radar.


  7. Steven says:

    Romans chapter 5 is for me, the starting point of all theology. Well, that and “In the beginning was the Word…” I read Romans 5 as universal in scope, not inhibited in its promises by anything.

    “For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life.” Rom. 5:10

    I think the difficulties come when we try to wrap our minds around this and draw up our own defining boundaries, exclusionary categories with which we can neatly wall off the Kingdom of God into the “haves” and “have-nots”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s very interesting how the infernalists take the “hell passages” as their starting point and interpret everything through that lens, while the universalists take the “victory and resurrection” passages as the starting point and interpret everything via that. Fr Kimel has a wonderful article on this blog on this peculiar phenomenon. I think it was called “The Hermeneutics of perdition: When Hell trumps Gospel”

      Liked by 1 person

  8. danaames says:

    Well, we have to define our terms here. I think the problem is that we automatically default to the Western, legality-infused definition , which is something like “God declaring/viewing people as righteous (morally okay) before him on the basis of their faith” (faith in Christ is understood).

    Some have recently advanced the idea that the faith in question is the faith of Christ, as in Christ’s own faithfulness, as John Stamps has noted above. If pistis is understood as “trusting loyalty”, then the faithfulness of Christ toward the Father makes the best interpretive sense. But we are still left with the “justification” part, and the difficulty of making the two thoughts sit together comfortably.

    I’m far from being a Greek scholar, but I too have been frustrated by the translation of the Greek “dik-” words with two separate English words. What would be the best word to use to give a comprehensive enough sense in English of what the “dik-” words are trying to convey? What is the “rightness”, the “just thing” that is being indicated here? I’ve wracked my brains and haven’t come up with a single-word translation. But with some thought and examination of the places where the “dik-” words appear, I have come up with a concept that might help make better sense as a definition.

    What if dikaiosyne means something like: the ability (not the best word, I think, but I haven’t yet come up with another) to have the kind of proper (right, just) relationship with everything that God has (the basis of which is self-giving love)? Think about it. Abolish all the legal and moralistic connotations of “justification/righteousness” (that tend to come from a conditional view of the Good News, seems to me). Read that wordy – and more ontologically-oriented – definition into those places instead. Also consider the only place I’ve ever heard the word “justified” used in any Orthodox liturgical setting: Baptism (“you are washed, you are cleansed, you are justified…”) What you then have is that human beings become endowed (need a better word here, too) with the ability to – finally! – relate rightly, to God and other human beings mainly, but also to the rest of creation, because of both their sacramental and their hypostatic union with Christ because of his faithfulness, in his humanity, toward the Father. Our faithfulness and ability to relate properly (with which we have been endowed by God – it doesn’t come from us, but God has created us capable of it and that capability is part of the inner equipment of our souls that has become sick because of the fall) become healed and are fed by the Holy Spirit working through those two kinds of union as we walk through life by trusting loyalty, not by sight… In Christ, both our relational ability and our faithfulness will be strengthened, and become the ground from which theosis will be worked in us. We don’t even have to deal with the idea of “imputation”; to me, it feels like some bit of theological chewing gum. It is for the very life of God to take root and grow in us for which we are redeemed. This is what we already believe in Orthodoxy; we don’t need to fit a theological square peg into a round hole, so to speak.

    So, “justification by faith” = “The ability to relate properly, the same way God relates (based on self-giving love), because of the faithfulness of Christ (as we are baptized into and are alive in Christ).” Try it on and see if it fits.


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