By Evan Kardaras, Sub-Deacon at St. Mary & St. Mina Coptic Orthodox Church, Bexley, Australia.
(Talk given at a Youth Meeting, April 2019)
How did Jesus save us? What exactly did he accomplish on the cross? These are the questions we will hopefully explore today in this talk. In order to do this, we will need to start right back at the creation of man. We will work our way through to the cross, resurrection and ascension of our Lord Jesus.
In Genesis 1:26-27 we read:
“Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” – Genesis 1:26-27
Here we see that Adam and Eve were created in the image and likeness of God.
From the writings of the Early Church Fathers, we know this means that they were created to be eternal through their union with God’s grace, the breath of life. They were to have free will, with desires for goodness and truth. They were also adorned with the Divine virtues: love, compassion, humility, kindness, joy, etc. They felt God’s presence in a powerful way through a living union with Him through His grace, and thus felt deep love, peace and joy, pervading all aspects of their existence.
Humanity was also called to have dominion over the earth, to tend and to keep the earth (Gen 2:15). In other words they were to use the earth in a responsible manner, caring for the earth and its creatures. They were to offer all of creation back to God in thanksgiving and praise, through their deep appreciation to the Lord.
Sadly though, we know that Adam and Eve did not remain in this state of purity and in sharing the likeness of God. They were tempted by Satan, fell away from God and experienced a change in their nature (Genesis 3). Through sin, they experienced a separation from God. According to our holy father St. Cyril, the breath of life given to them by God was taken away. Their natures became corrupt, riddled with passions, inclined toward sin and spiritually sick.
They experienced a form of spiritual death. To be spiritually alive is to be united to God who is life. The result of this separation from God, losing His grace, being disconnected from the source of life, was that they would one day face the reality of physical death.
Think about it, if God is the source of life, then only by remaining in union with Him can one be truly alive. Being disconnected from the source of life, means entering a process of corruption and ultimately death.
Thus they went from their natural state, of being in communion with God and His grace, and enjoying unceasingly the presence of God, to severing this union through sin. This led to them becoming unnatural beings. Beings that were eternal by God’s grace and union with Him, now became mortal beings, beings that would one day die.
Beings that were created to be like God, abundant in virtues, now became full of weaknesses, passions, sin and darkness. They lost the beauty of feeling the grace, love, peace and joy of God, and instead became acquainted with sorrow, depression, anxiety, pain and ultimately death.
We also know that being close to God, being united with Him, protects a person from the evil demons. The opposite is also true; if we’re distant from God through sin, we allow the evil spirits to have a certain dominion, or power over our lives, and cause us greater harm. Thus Adam and Eve also fell under the power of the evil spirits and suffered from their tyranny.
We also know that all of creation was affected through Adam’s sin. Creation had been placed under Adam and Eve’s care and dominion, and thus when they became sick through sin, all creation became sick with them.
St John Chrysostom when commenting on Romans 8:20 says:
“What is the meaning of, ‘the creation was made subject to vanity?’ Why that it became corruptible? For what cause, and on what account? On account of thee, O man. For since thou hast taken a body mortal and liable to suffering, the earth too hath received a curse, and brought forth thorns and thistles.” – Saint John Chrysostom, Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers Series I, vol. 11
St Gregory the Sinaite also says:
“The presently-existing creation was not originally created corruptible; but afterwards it fell under corruption, being made subject to vanity, according to the Scripture, not willingly, but by reason of him, Adam, who hath subjected it in hope of the renewal of Adam who had become subject to corruption. (Rm. 8:20) He who renewed and sanctified Adam has renewed the creation also, but He has not yet delivered it from corruption.” – Saint Gregory the Sinaite (+1346) Philokalia Chapters on Commandments and Dogmas
From what’s been said above it explains a few things.
- Sin led to a separation from God and a distortion in man’s relationship with Him.
- Sin led to human nature becoming infected with lusts and sinful passions, it became corrupted.
- Sin led to the fact that man would one day have to face physical death, through the corruption of his nature and separation from God who is life.
- Sin led to man becoming subjected to evil spirits, in as much as he aligns his will with them.
- Creation was subject to futility and became sick. It partook of corruption through man’s fall.
We see then that death is not only a therapeutic punishment from God for the transgression of Adam and Eve. It’s also very much a natural consequence of being separated from God through sin and losing the breath of life.
This is how our holy father St Cyril explains it:
“But when he was punished because of his transgression, he justly heard, “Earth you are, and to earth you will depart,” and in so hearing he was stripped of grace. The breath of life, that is, the Spirit of him who says, “I am the life,” departed from the earthly flesh, and the living being fell into death through the flesh alone. The soul was preserved in immortality since the words “earth you are, and to earth you will depart” were addressed only to the flesh” – St Cyril of Alexandria – Commentary on John. Vol. 1, p. 63
God in His wisdom, foreseeing the fall, made man with flesh that could only remain eternal through its living communion with Him. Thus physical death, became a gateway to exit this broken world of sin, and gave man a chance of repentance and salvation from his broken state. At death, man’s soul would separate from his dead body, and remain in hades awaiting judgement. His body would continue to decay in the earth and be dissolved.
Man had no way to fix this problem, no way whatsoever. His nature was spiritually and physically sick. He had a higher propensity toward sin through the indwelling lusts and passions, made possible through His disabling the energies or grace of God through his sin. He was subject to death and all creation was also subject to corruption and death through him. The devil and his evil spirits, had a certain power over man, through man aligning his will with them through submitting to the sinful passions. No matter how righteous a person may have been, he could not reverse the effect of the fall on himself and over all creation. He would ultimately face death, no matter how righteous.
This is where the incarnation of the Son of God comes into the picture. For the human nature to be healed and restored to its original dignity, someone would need to be born who could solve all the above mentioned problems with human nature due to the fall.
He would need to overcome:
- Sin – as all human beings are sinners and cannot overcome sin through their own strength.
- The Devil – as he also continues to tempt humanity and do all in his power to destroy as many souls as possible.
- Death – as all human beings are subject to death through sin and the corruption of their nature.
If humanity is subject to the above: death, sin and the devil, and is under their dominion, and if humanity was the cause of this catastrophe, only a human person could truly liberate and restore humanity to its former glory. Also if creation fell through man, only a man could restore creation to its former glory. Thus God himself becomes man as our Lord Jesus Christ. God incarnates through the Virgin Mary, being consubstantial with the Father in relation to His divinity, and consubstantial to us in relation to His humanity, in one nature or hypostasis.
We know that the death of humanity is a therapeutic punishment and consequence of sin. So for the sickness of death to be taken away, or for the human nature to be healed from death, a humanity would need to arise that could overcome sin and death, and be able to impart this healing to all human beings.
We know Jesus never sinned; he overcame all temptations and remained perfect and pure all his life. We also know that death is a consequence on sin. Doesn’t this mean that if Jesus were to experience death, it would be irrational and unfair, as He never sinned? Why should Jesus suffer the consequence and punishment of sin, being death, if he never sinned? Why did He die on the cross? He died on the cross for our sins. He died in our place, and through His death, being the eternal God, He totally conquered and destroyed death once and for all.
As we say triumphantly at Pascha: Christ is Risen from the dead, by death trampling on death, and upon those in the tombs, bestowing life.
This is explained beautifully by our Coptic father Saint Athanasius:
“He assumed a body capable of death, in order that it, through belonging to the Word Who is above all, might become in dying a sufficient exchange for all, and, itself remaining incorruptible through His indwelling, might thereafter put an end to corruption for all others as well, by the grace of the resurrection. It was by surrendering to death the body which He had taken, as an offering and sacrifice free from every stain, that He forthwith abolished death for His human brethren by the offering of the equivalent. For naturally, since the Word of God was above all, when He offered His own temple and bodily instrument as a substitute for the life of all, He fulfilled in death all that was required. Naturally also, through this union of the immortal Son of God with our human nature, all men were clothed with incorruption in the promise of the resurrection.” – Saint Athanasius – On the Incarnation of the Word – Chapter 2
Thus Jesus gave himself as a ransom over to death and conquered death once and for all, through his death on the cross. He also abolished the power of sin and the Devil, as he never sinned and overcame all temptations.
How does this benefit us though? How is this victory over sin, Satan and death imparted to us, who didn’t achieve this victory ourselves? Jesus opens the door for us to this victory, by asking us to have faith in Him. By acknowledging we cannot be saved alone, that we are sinners, and that we want to be saved by Him. After we believe in Him with all our hearts, he asks us to be baptised. We read in Galatians 3:26-29:
“For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. 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 seed, and heirs according to the promise.”
We read in St Cyril the following:
“…those who have attained adoption as sons of God through faith in Christ, are baptized not into anything belonging to the created order, but into the Holy Trinity Itself, through the mediation of the Word, who on the one hand joined what is human to Himself by means of the flesh that was united to Him, and on the other was joined by nature to Him who had begotten Him, since He was by nature God. Thus what is servile [us] rises up to the level of sonship through participation in Him who is Son in reality, called and, as it were, promoted to the rank which the Son possesses by nature. That is why we are called offspring of God and are such, for we have experienced a rebirth by faith through the Spirit.” – St. Cyril of Alexandria (Commentary on John, 1:13, pgs. 102-103).
Through baptism we are clothed with Christ, we put on Christ. We are united to Him and He imparts to us His victory over sin, Satan and death. Through this union with Him we also become sons and daughters of God. As St. Cyril says, He raises us “up to the level of sonship through participation in Him who is Son in reality”… He promotes us “to the rank which the Son possesses by nature. That is why we are called offspring of God and are such, for we have experienced a rebirth by faith through the Spirit.” Through faith and Baptism we become members and partakers of the New Covenant. We become God’s people, God’s sons and daughters.
In 1 Corinthians 12:20 St. Paul says “But now indeed there are many members, yet one body” and in 1 Corinthians 12:27 “Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually.” In Colossians 1:18, St Paul says: “And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist. And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the pre-eminence.”
As the Church we are called the body of Christ, with our Lord Jesus being the Head of the body. Everything the Head has is imparted to the Body. This is why we believe there is no salvation outside the Church, as the Church is the body of the Head, and only through being united to the Head, Jesus, can someone partake of the salvation accomplished by the Head, our Lord Jesus.
We also know that we are called to continue cultivating this union with God, through the ongoing cultivation of faith, obeying the gospel commandments, and an ongoing relationship with Him. To assist us in this struggle, our Lord has given us the Mystery of Repentance and Confession. Knowing that we are weak and will fall into sin after Baptism, our Lord allows us to renew our Baptism every time we confess our sins through His anointed servants, the priests. When combined with heartfelt repentance, confession eradicates sin from our lives and hearts and makes us pure and holy in His site.
Our Lord has also given us the blessing of being able to partake of His precious Body and Blood in Holy Communion.
Let’s read what St Cyril says about Holy Communion:
“…the holy body of Christ endows those who receive it with life and keeps us incorrupt when it mingles with our bodies. For it is not the body of anyone else, but is thought of as the body of Him who is Life by nature, since it has within itself the entire power of the Word that is united with it, and is endowed with His qualities, or rather filled with His energy, through which all things are given life and maintained in being.” – St. Cyril of Alexandria (Cyril of Alexandria: Commentary on John, pgs. 110)
Everything that Christ has, is given to us by our union with Him in Baptism and through our ongoing union of love with Him, through repentance, Confession and regular partaking of His precious Body and Blood.
So through Christian living and sacramental participation, everything that Christ achieved through His life, death, resurrection and ascension, is given to us as a gift, and we are able to partake of healing from sin, and death, and attain eternal salvation through His love. Through our union with Him, He heals us from sin, restores us to His likeness and ultimately will save us and grant us eternal life.
We also say every Sunday in the Creed: “we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the age to come”.
Our ultimate victory over death, will occur at the final trumpet, when Christ returns at His second coming in full glory with His holy angels. Our bodies will resurrect from the dead and our souls will be reunited with them.
Our Lord Jesus in the Gospel of St. John 5:28-29 says:
“Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.”
St Pauls says in 1 Thessalonians 4:14-17:
“For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord.”
Here we see that at the second coming all humanity will rise from the dead. Those who loved God and were united to Him in their earthly lives, will enjoy eternal life with Him in heaven. Those who didn’t want anything to do with Him will also rise, but to the “the resurrection of condemnation” as our Lord said. And at this point, at the second coming and final judgement, the story of our salvation comes to an end. God completes His victory over sin and evil, and grants victory to those who followed him throughout their lives.
We see then that salvation is very much is a gift from God, who wants nothing more for us than to be saved and enjoy eternal life with Him. Our Lord has done everything necessary on His part. It’s our duty and obligation to respond accordingly to this gift and do all we can to attain the blessings He has made readily available for us and for all people.
 Cyril of Alexandria. (2013–2015). Commentary on John. (J. C. Elowsky, T. C. Oden, & G. L. Bray, Eds., D. R. Maxwell, Trans.) (Vol. 1, p. 63). Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic: An Imprint of InterVarsity Press.