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Holiness in the Early Church

The Heritage of Holiness Series

Jirair S. Tashjian

Christians Not Different, Just Forgiven?

Have you seen the bumper sticker, "Christians are not different; they’re just forgiven?" Is it true? I would like to examine how the early church might have answered the question. When I say "the early church" I mean the church from around the second to the fifth century. Sometimes we use the term "the early church" as if all Christians in the second to the fifth centuries were completely agreed on every Christian doctrine. That is not so. There were disagreements; there were a lot of debates. One of the biggest disagreements was on this very question: Are Christians merely forgiven, or are they really different?

Western and Eastern Christianity

There were two major groups in the early church: the Western Church and the Eastern Church. Now, when I say Western and Eastern, I am referring to the Mediterranean world. Think of an imaginary line running north and south through the Adriatic Sea, dividing the Mediterranean Sea in half. The Western Church would be west of that line and the Eastern Church east of the line. Rome was the center of the Western Church, later to become the Roman Catholic Church out of which came the Protestant movement as a protest against Catholicism. Both Catholicism and Protestantism belong to the Western Church. This branch in the early church spoke and wrote in Latin.

The Eastern Church, on the other hand, would be all the churches east of our imaginary line. The Eastern Church spoke and wrote in Greek. Today the Eastern Church includes all the Eastern Orthodox churches like the Greek Orthodox, the Russian Orthodox and so on. The Eastern Orthodox Church looked at Constantinople (modern Istanbul in Turkey) as its center or headquarters and it included such countries as Greece, Egypt, Syria, Palestine, Asia Minor, Armenia, and eventually Russia and Eastern Europe.

Now, what does this have to do with holiness? Simply this: the Western Church explained sin and salvation one way, and the Eastern Church explained it another way. And that is what I want to focus on here.

Two Judges

To illustrate the difference let me use a modern analogy. Let’s say a teenager drives his car carelessly and is involved in a car accident that injures a friend of his riding in the car. He is taken to court and the judge fines him $1,000. He doesn’t have the money, so his friend who was injured tells the judge that he would pay the fine. The judge accepts the offer and lets the guilty driver go free. He has been forgiven because someone else paid the fine. But as soon as he leaves the court, guess what he does? He drives 60 mph in a school zone where the speed limit is 25. The young man has been forgiven, but has he changed? Not a bit. In fact, this judge is not concerned whether this teenager changes or not, because he sees his role as a judge to impose a penalty and make sure that the penalty is paid. After all, he is a judge, not a counselor, pastor, or psychologist.

But what if there was a second judge with a similar case, except that this judge said to the boy: "You are guilty, but your friend is paying the fine for you and therefore you are no longer legally liable to pay anything. You are free to go. But I’m not finished with you. You will have to go through some counseling. And you need to do some community service. You will have to attend driver’s training classes. You will have to report to me every week. You will be on probation. I’m going to keep an eye on you until you can prove to me that you have changed your driving habits and you have become a responsible person."

These two judges obviously looked at guilt, punishment, and forgiveness in radically different ways. The first judge thought in strictly legal terms: if the fine is paid, the boy can go free; he is no longer liable. He is forgiven because someone paid the price. The second judge also accepts the payment from the friend, but believes that forgiveness is only the beginning. The reckless driver must somehow be helped to become a responsible driver. It is not enough that someone pay the fine and let the guilty party go free. The guilty man needs a lot of help to change and become a responsible person.

The Western Church

The Western branch of the early church looked at sin and salvation the same way as the first judge. Sin is a legal problem, a judicial problem. A man is guilty, and the guilty person must be punished, unless there is someone else who is willing to be punished in place of the guilty one. We are all guilty and we owe God a big debt that we cannot pay. But Jesus paid it all; he took our place; he was punished for us. We are set free, we are forgiven.

Maybe part of the reason the Western Church with its center in Rome looked at sin and salvation in legal terms is because of the influence of Roman law. The Romans were known for their law. Could it be that the Roman Catholic Church patterned its understanding of sin, guilt, and absolution after the Roman legal system? When sin is committed, the sinner goes to confession and receives absolution. When another sin is committed, another trip to the priest is necessary for confession and absolution. The same thing is repeated over and over.

Now, Protestantism of course rejected the Roman Catholic doctrine that we need priests to hear our confessions and to grant absolution. Instead, we can come to God directly and can confess our sins to Him. By faith we receive forgiveness or justification. God cancels the debt of sin because Christ took on himself the penalty for our sins. We may still be under the power of sin, but that does not matter because God no longer sees our sins. He sees us through the righteousness of Christ. God no longer considers us guilty. John Calvin and his followers developed this theology in its extreme form to the point where they could even say that we sin daily in word, thought and deed, but that does not mean we have lost our salvation. In fact, we can never lose our salvation because our salvation does not depend on us; it depends on God.

Let me back up a little and consider the Western view of human nature. The Western Church believed that God created human beings perfect and complete. But then came the Fall, when Adam and Eve used their freedom and disobeyed God. They became guilty before God. Human nature became sinful, and that sinful nature, or original sin, passed on to all human beings. All men and women have inherited the guilt of original sin. Human beings completely lost the image of God and their freedom to make any decisions. They were now free to do only one thing--to sin. So if there is going to be any salvation, it will have to come from God, and God alone.

The Eastern Church

The Eastern Church on the other hand looked at human nature differently. God created human beings innocent and good, but not complete. So even if there were no Fall, human beings would still have to grow in God-likeness. The Eastern Church made a distinction between the image of God and the likeness of God. Even though humanity was made in the image of God, it still had to grow into the likeness of God. Furthermore, Adam and Eve did not completely lose the image of God when they sinned. They lost the likeness of God, and they lost their immortality. They became mortal. And it is not original sin that passes on to the descendants of Adam, but mortality. So human beings are not held guilty for original sin. They become guilty when they sin, as Adam and Eve sinned.

John Chrysostom was one of the most eloquent Eastern Church fathers in the fourth and fifth centuries. In fact, his name, Chrysostom, means the "golden mouth," a reference to the power of his preaching. Chrysostom believed that God’s work of creation was a work of grace and therefore good. Now, there were Greek philosophers who looked at this world as inherently evil, not from God. -1- Our physical bodies are evil, but our souls are good, but unfortunately our souls are imprisoned in this sinful body and cannot find freedom until at death when our souls at last are released from this sinful body. In contrast to such ideas, Chrysostom put it this way:

Many also of the Greeks and heretics affirm that it [the body] was not even created by God... But for my part, when such things are talked of, I would first make this reply. Tell me not of man, fallen, degraded and condemned. But if you would learn what manner of body God formed us with at the first, let us go to Paradise, and survey the Man that was created at the beginning. For that body was not thus corruptible and mortal; but like as some statue of gold just brought from the furnace, that shines splendidly, so that frame was free from all corruption. Labour did not trouble it, nor sweat deface it. Cares did not conspire against it; nor was there any other affection of that kind to distress it . . .

Chrysostom goes on to say that this initial act of grace in God’s creation is not completely lost even after the Fall. In fact, Chrysostom believed that human beings were from the very beginning created with a God-given conscience which continues to be part of human nature even though human nature has become diseased. Later, John Wesley would call this prevenient grace. Listen again to Chrysostom’s words:

. . . when God formed man, he implanted within him from the beginning a natural law. And what then was this natural law? He gave utterance to conscience within us; and made the knowledge of good things, and of those which are the contrary, to be self-taught.

Perhaps one phrase that can sum up the Eastern theology is optimism of grace. Not even the Fall can deprive human beings of the potential of God-likeness. Again, in Chrysostom’s words:

Yet it is possible even for one with a mortal body not to sin. Do you see the abundancy of Christ’s grace? How then, is it that "sin reign" . . .? It is not from any power of its own, but from your own listlessness.

The Eastern Church viewed sin as a disease in the human condition which needs healing. Forgiveness alone is not enough. If sin is a disease of human nature, then salvation is the healing of our sin-diseased nature. Sinners not only need pardon, but also power that would transform them inside and out. For example, habitual liars, adulterers, drug addicts, thieves (let me also add middle class sins such as materialism, greed and workaholism) need more than forgiveness. They need healing, transformation, cleansing, change of heart and mind.

The Western and Eastern branches of the early church also viewed the sacraments differently. The Western Church viewed baptism and the Eucharist (communion) as certification of justified status before God. When one is baptized God has placed His seal of approval on that individual. Baptism takes away the guilt of original sin. That is why infants are baptized. Likewise, to receive the Eucharist one must first be properly certified. When one receives the Eucharist, the seal of approval remains in force. There were a lot of debates as to who may receive communion and who may not. Likewise, there were debates as to who is qualified to bestow it or administer it and who is not. All of this means that the sacraments were viewed in legal or judicial terms.

The Eastern Church viewed the sacraments differently. Baptism was a sacrament of cleansing and purification, not just the removal of guilt. Likewise, the Eucharist was viewed as the means by which the Holy Spirit continues to be present in us and continues the healing of our sin-diseased nature. Ignatius called it "the medicine of immortality." The question is not who is worthy, or who is not. No one is worthy. The sacrament is not a certification that we are okay. It is God’s continued grace to bring healing and wholeness to us. Chrysostom taught that we are restored in the image of God by sharing in the nature of God. Listen to his words:

Such is the power of faith in Him, such the excess of His grace. And as the element of fire, when it meets with ore from the mine straightway of earth makes it gold, even so and much more Baptism makes those who are washed to be of gold instead of clay, the Spirit at that time falling like fire into our souls, burning up the "image of the earthy," and producing the "image of the heavenly," fresh coined, bright and glittering, as from the furnace mould.

Why then did he say not that "He made them sons of God," but that "He gave them power to become sons of God?" To show that we need much zeal to keep the image of sonship impressed on us at Baptism, all through without spot or soil; and at the same time to show that no one shall be able to take this power from us, unless we are first to deprive ourselves of it."

In fact, to say it even more forcefully, the Eastern Church believed that God makes us more and more like Himself. God is continually restoring His image in us. We are in the process of becoming like God. The ultimate purpose is that our nature be like the nature of God, full of love, full of light. Commenting on the incarnation of Christ, Athanasius, another theologian of the Eastern Church in the fourth century, put it this way, "He [Christ] was made man that we might be made God," not in the pantheistic sense of the modern New Age movement where we become our own gods, but in the sense that we are continually being restored to the image of God. -2-

John Wesley and Holiness Heritage

Now, in this series we are focusing on our holiness heritage. There is still a question that we need to answer, and it is this: since we as heirs of the holiness movements are, after all, part of the Western Church, how is it that the theology of the Eastern Church is still our heritage? What is the bridge between us and the Eastern Orthodox Church? That bridge is none other than John Wesley. Wesley was Anglican and therefore trained in Western theology.

But Anglicans at the time of Wesley became interested in Eastern theology. So at Oxford Wesley studied Greek and also taught Greek. The purpose was to be able to read the Greek writings of the Eastern Church and not just the Latin writings of the Western Church. Wesley as our father in the faith has become the bridge between us as Wesleyans and the Greek fathers of the Eastern Church in the early centuries of Christianity. Wesleyan theologians have recently begun to recover this Eastern heritage that had been overshadowed by the more dominant voice of Western theology.

Biblical Foundations

Finally, let me conclude with one last point. To which of the two voices of the early church are we going to listen? Which of the two is a more authentic understanding of Scripture? The Western Church has certainly given us an important truth, that God offers guilty sinners forgiveness through Jesus Christ. But what about the Eastern Church’s insistence that guilty sinners are not only pardoned but also empowered to take on the nature of God? Is there anything in Scripture to substantiate such a mind-boggling position?

Indeed there is. From the very beginning God intended for humanity to be in His own image, to share in His own very nature. He made you and me like Himself and intended us to be that way. Unfortunately, we have not done a very good job of living up to God’s expectations. But God has not given up. He has continued to restore that image that we have stained and marred with sin and disobedience.

That is what Jeremiah means when he says God will make a new covenant. God will write His law on our hearts, our very being. Our whole self is to be transformed by His grace. Again in Hebrews 12 we read that God disciplines us that we may share in His holiness. In Matthew 5:48 Jesus says, "Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect," which means to be loving and forgiving as God Himself is, even to the point of loving and forgiving our enemies. And finally, listen to 2 Peter 1:3-4:

His divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Thus he has given us, through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants of the divine nature. [NRSV}

Let me emphasize that last line: God intends for us to become participants in His own divine nature! Can we even begin to fathom what that means?

Now let me ask again about that bumper sticker--"Christians are not different; they’re just forgiven"--is it true? Not at all. Christians are not just forgiven; they are different, and they continue to become different. They are promised to share in the very nature of God. God has provided healing and wholeness for us His creatures. "There is a balm in Gilead, to make the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead, to heal the sin-sick soul."


1. For a brief discussion of Greek dualism that devalued the physical world, see Body and Soul:  Greek and Hebraic Tensions in Scripture

2. For some consideration of this Eastern perspective applied to the Eucharist, see Word and Table:  Reflections on a Theology of Worship.

-Jirair S. Tashjian, Copyright © 2018, Jirair Tashjian
and Christian Resource Institute - All Rights Reserved
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