The difference between Western and Eastern Christianity


I had this brought home to me quite profoundly the second Sunday I attended an Orthodox church. My priest, Father Gregory Horton, had invited my wife and I to dinner at his home. As our wives worked together in the kitchen preparing the meal, he and I discussed theology. At one point, he posed the question to me, “Matthew, what is grace?” I must confess that I was a little put off by that. For a second, I felt, “Does Father really think me so spiritually immature that I do not know what grace is?” So I responded very quickly, and anyone who is listening to this who has had experience with Western Christian theology knows exactly how I answered it. I proudly asserted, and we all know this, right? “Grace is God’s unmerited favor.” Father smile at me, chuckled a little and said, “Why is it that everything is a thing for you Westerners?” I had no idea what he meant, so to end my confusion, I demanded, “Well then, you tell me, what is it?” “Grace, dear Matthew,” he replied, still smiling, “is the Holy Spirit.”

It was a revolutionizing moment in my Christian experience. As time passed, I began not just to comprehend, but also to experience what Father Gregory was telling me. The Orthodox Christian life quickly teaches us that God does not deal in things. Grace, for instance, is not some commodity that God produces. It is not something He wraps up in a spiritual package and sends to us so that we can open it up and apply it to our lives. The same must also be said for faith, or mercy, or wisdom. None of these are things. They are activities of God within the soul of a human being. Grace is God at work transforming me. Faith is the Christ who dwells within me, reaching out to the same Christ who sits on His throne in heaven. Mercy is God expressing His goodness in and through me. Wisdom is God thinking His thoughts in me. Again, this is so crucial, but it runs against the grain of this objectifying mindset that has determined, for Christians and non-Christians alike, how the Western world understand the Christian experience, and so I pray that those of you listening will really let this settle in.

Perhaps it will become clearer as we apply all this to the question of imputed righteousness. Just as with grace, or faith, or mercy, or wisdom, the Western mindset is at work here. It takes God’s activity of imputing righteousness and turns it into a thing called imputed righteousness. But just like grace, faith, mercy or wisdom, righteousness is not a thing. You cannot buy a can of it, nor is righteousness some sort of spiritual currency that God can apply to our account in heaven in order to erase the debt we owe Him for sinning against Him.

What is righteousness? It is not a thing, it is a state of being. Specifically, it is God’s state of being. It is not some thing that God produces. It is who He is. Righteousness is not even some quality or characteristic within God that He can somehow pull out chunks of and give to us to help us pay our debt to him, or use in some other way. No, righteousness is God’s perfectly humble, perfectly self-sacrificing, perfectly good, perfectly loving way of existing.

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