Collectively speaking, the historic pre-schism doctrine of atonement is that of Christ dying for us as a ransom and a sacrifice, a “new Adam,” so as to make living what had been lost prior to the Fall of Man in the Garden of Eden. We can see this throughout the Bible, including the writings of St. Paul and Christ Himself. It was not until well into the Middle Ages that Western schismatic Christians began to formulate and dogmatize the doctrine of what they call “penal substitution.”
This doctrine involves taking the salvific teachings of the Bible, as well as the Fathers, and twisting them into a legal format. Many Protestant teachers today speak as if this legal doctrine of penal substitution has always been the norm. One very popular teacher, Dr. Wayne Grudem, says this in regards to penal substitution:
“To say that God can forgive sins without requiring any penalty (in spite of the fact that throughout Scripture sin always requires the payment of a penalty) is seriously to underestimate the absolute character of the justice of God.”
Grudem is either not very studied in the Fathers or is not being very honest with himself here. On the previous page in Grudem’s book Systematic Theology, Grudem slams the historic position of Christ dying as a ransom and goes as far as stating that it is not found in Scripture and has few supporters in the history of the Church. This is so completely false! Jaroslav Pelikan, who is referred to by both Protestant and Orthodox Christians as a hallmark to historic theology, says this in regards to what is referred to as the “ransom theory”:
“So great was the emphasis in the soteriology of many church fathers that the definition of salvation through Christ’s victory over man’s enemies has been called “the classic” theory of atonement…but Christ as victor was more important in the orthodox expositions of salvation and reconciliation than Western dogmatics has recognized” (The Christian Tradition, A History of the Development of Doctrine – 100-600 A.D., p. 149).
I really cannot understand why so many Christian teachers insist on teaching this legalistic doctrine of penal substitution. It does not liberate one from the power of Satan whatsoever. It appears to do so only because the doctrine itself creates a hero of itself by pushing humanity into the fire and then attempting to rescue it. It overemphasizes the Fall of Man by nearly making man out to be some type of demon and insisting that God hates all who are not “saved” and that God wants to kill them. The doctrine goes on to teach that Christ took the punishment upon Himself, that God killed Jesus. God killed Jesus? Think about that!
Christ was not God’s punching bag, He was Satan’s punching bag. It was Satan that initiated the crucifixion of Christ, believing that Christ’s death would allow him to triumph over God’s people. As St. Paul says, Christ is our “ransom.” The devil took him as a ransom and now the devil no longer has God’s people in bondage. The New Covenant has destroyed the power of the devil (1 John) and has given us new life in Christ, victory over the powers of darkness. This is what it means to have faith in Christ! We have faith that Christ liberated us from the power of the devil, who is the author of sin.
If churches would begin to understand that Christ is our scapegoat, our ransom, they could truly believe that the devil has no authority over them and begin to live this belief. They may say, “oh yes, I believe that, just look at this Bible verse or look at this (modern) doctrine.” But these modern doctrines do not liberate. In fact, the modern doctrines seem to place people in a type of bondage. Again, the modern doctrines place a heavy burden of guilt upon the Christian and then theological heroes come to save the day with their doctrines of so-called “Justification” and “Penal Substitution.”
When one believes that all they have been liberated from is the fact that God is no longer going to pour His eternal wrath of hell on them, the Christian loses sight of just how God blesses them in this life, just how God IS saving us; how He is blessing us daily through the power of His salvation. In Orthodox theology, God saves us daily through His redemption. We become more and more enraptured in His love as each day goes by, some faster than others, yet all progressively. The liberating power of God’s atonement in Orthodox theology becomes a living reality rather than an abstract truth. One does not have to “preach” the doctrine of justification to ones self, as many Protestants teach. In the Orthodox faith, life is much more of healing process than it is an indoctrination program.