Unfortunately we in the West have at times viewed salvation only in forensic or legal terms. We summarize the significance of the cross by saying that Christ died to forgive us of our sins and that by his death we are declared righteous. Our emphasis has been that Christ relieves us of our guilt and that he calls us righteous even though we are sinful and unclean. The problem with only speaking of the cross in this way is that we miss an integral and necessary component to salvation; that of healing. This is what I mean when I mentioned at the beginning the primary aspects of salvation being pardon and power. Yes, by Christ’s death we are pardoned and forgiven of our sins. But we are also freed from the power of death and sin. And we are not only declared righteous, but we are made righteous. This transformation that the Holy Spirit enacts in our lives by the work of Christ is not something that necessarily happens instantaneously; in fact, most of the time it does not. We are gradually being restored and brought to perfection by the continuing work of the Spirit in our lives and our continual response to that grace.
Eastern Christianity has much better captures this aspect of salvation. The Eastern Church Fathers taught that even if there had been no fall, the Son still would have had to take on human nature. Let me say that again: the Eastern Fathers taught that even if there had been no fall, the Son still would have to take on human nature. Let me explain. The Eastern Church has understood that when God created humanity, he did not created humanity in the ultimate state that we ought to be. We were created corruptible. We could fall and did. So even initial created humanity was not perfected. In order for humanity to become like God, which is one of the central aspects of salvation that we are to be made holy and changed unto the very likeness and image of God, God would have to become like us. Even without the fall the incarnation would still have to occur because we could not participate in the divine nature unless God participated in human nature. In other words, we could not be made like God unless God was made like us. The Eastern Church has considered one of the most serious consequences of the fall to be mortality. When Adam and Even sinned, death entered the world. So, because the fall introduced death into the world, Christ now had to die in order to fully participate in what it means to be human.
For this reason the Eastern Church has understood the therapeutic aspect of salvation much better than we in the West typically have. They understand that salvation is about setting us free from the bondage of death and is about healing our corrupted moral nature. It is not just about being forgiven, it is about being made into persons who so reflect the character of God that our future need of forgiveness is minimal. As the Church Father Athanasius said, “God became like man, so that we could become like God.”
Perhaps there would be no more fitting way to close than by quoting John Wesley himself, who understood the necessity of integrating both the pardoning aspect of salvation as well as the transformative aspect.
“By salvation I mean, not barely merely deliverance from hell, or going to heaven, but a present deliverance from sin, a restoration of the soul to its primitive health, its original purity; a recovery of the divine nature; the renewal of our souls after the image of God in righteousness and true holiness, in justice, mercy, and truth. This implies all holy and heavenly tempers, and by consequence all holiness of conduct.”