The Epistle to Diognetus Part 9

“As long then as the former time [prior to the coming of Christ] endured, He permitted us to be carried along by unruly impulses, being drawn away by the desire of pleasure and various lusts. This was not that He at all delighted in our sins, but that He simply endured them; nor that He approved the time of working iniquity which then was, but that He sought to form a mind conscious of righteousness, so that being convinced in that time of our unworthiness of attaining life through our own works, it should now, through the kindness of God, be gifted to us; and having made it manifest that in ourselves we were unable to enter into the kingdom of God, we might through the power of God be made able. But when our wickedness had reached its height, and it had been clearly shown that its reward, punishment and death, was impending over us; and when the time had come which God had before appointed for manifesting His own kindness and power, how the one love of God, through exceeding regard for men, did not regard us with hatred, nor thrust us away, nor remember our iniquity against us, but showed great long-suffering, and bore with us, He Himself took on Him the burden of our iniquities (Cf. Isaiah 53.5), He gave His own Son as a ransom for us, the holy One for transgressors, the blameless One for the wicked, the righteous One for the unrighteous, the incorruptible One for the corruptible, the immortal One for them that are mortal. For what other thing was capable of covering our sins than His righteousness? By what other one was it possible that we, the wicked and ungodly, could be justified, than by the only Son of God? O sweet exchange! O unsearchable operation! O benefits surpassing all expectation! that the wickedness of many should be hid in a single righteous One, and that the righteousness of One should justify many transgressors! Having therefore convinced us in the former time that our nature was unable to attain to life, and having now revealed the Saviour who is able to save even those things which it was [formerly] impossible to save, by both these facts He desired to lead us to trust in His kindness, to esteem Him our Nourisher, Father, Teacher, Counsellor, Healer, our Wisdom, Light, Honour, Glory, Power, and Life, so that we should not be anxious concerning clothing and food (Cf. Matt 6.25).” The Epistle to Diognetus, Chapter 9.

Here we shall continue to examine this dense 9th chapter of Mathetes’ epistle to Diognetus, carrying on from our previous reflections (The Epistle to Diognetus Part 8). In the previous reflection we saw the answer given to the hypothetical question that some were faced with, namely, “Why was God sent SO late to humanity?” In this post, let us examine what it meant for God to be sent to humanity and how this has actually changed the human condition.

Mathetes explains that at a certain point, the consequences of our sins had finally become apparent to the human heart. He writes of human wickedness, “It had been clearly shown that its reward, punishment and death, was impending over us.” There is an important distinction to make here. Mathetes does not say that God was offended at these sins and He has sat waiting until the appointed time to punish us or to punish His Son instead of us. Rather, Mathetes has stated that God in fact bore with our sins until the time that we might learn what this sin is and entails. We see this process at play in the Old Testament Scriptures in that God continually instructs His people as to how to live. To us this looks as though it is legalistic text laying down a bunch of ground rules but this in reality was the pedagogical process educating the people how to live a truly human life, a life in God. This is what St. Paul teaches in his epistle to the Romans,

“Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness?… But now having been set free from sin, and having become slaves of God, you have your fruit to holiness, and the end, everlasting life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 6.16-23.

Wages. Wages are that which we work for, that which we labour after. Thus the one who sins is actually the one who yearns after and works for death. Inasmuch as sin is that which closes me in on myself and severs the relationship I have with God, it is a direct cause of death. Sin, where I seek after my fulfillment or my exaltation independent of (or in spite of) God is that which leads to death. St. Basil says to us,

“For to the extent that he [Adam] withdrew from life, he likewise drew near to death. For God is life, and the privation of life is death. Therefore Adam prepared death for himself through his withdrawal from God, in accord with what is written, ‘Behold those who remove themselves from you are destroyed’ (Ps 72.27). Thus God did not create death, but we brought it upon ourselves by a wicked intention.” St. Basil the Great, Homily that God is not the Cause of Evil Trans: Nonna Verna Harrison, On the Human Condition, SVS Press, pg 72.

Having learned of the disastrous consequences of our sin and the death entailed therein, what is God’s response? Does God cast us away or disregard our race now that we have deserted Him? No, God’s response, says Mathetes, is to come Himself for our sins. The Father shows long-suffering and sends His Son that we might be healed of our death, that our sin might be slain. In the beautiful passages that follow, our anonymous Mathetes contrasts the incorruptible, immortal God with the mortal, corruptible humans that He came to assume and to heal. This paradox continues to be the heart of the Christian Gospel, that God would come to heal us despite our turn away from Him. This paradox would continue to test the minds and (more importantly) the hearts of generations of Christians who would seek to deny God’s becoming flesh or shroud The Incarnation in talk of a divided Christ or one Who does not assume true human flesh. Grensted in his early but useful study of the history of Christian understanding of “the atonement” (Here in air-quotes because ‘Atonement’ is not a word seen in the early fathers but rather by theologians of the 16th century)  would highlight a few elements in this passage that bear reproducing here.

1. Not justice but love is the secret of Atonement, for love and not force is the essential attribute of God. And in this love the Father and the Son agree. There is no question of an imposition of God s will upon the Son, for the Father’s will is His also.
2. But this state [of sin] calls forth not judgement upon him, but the pity of God.
3. God s pity is shown in the sending of His Son to be ‘a ransom for us.’… It is clear, however, that that which makes the ransom effective is the righteousness rather than the suffering of Christ.
In that righteousness we are justified. The Pauline term is used, but the meaning has become much less forensic. The thought is not that of an externally imputed righteousness, but of a real change in the sinful heart of man, and the writer seems to feel that the righteousness of Christ becomes actually ours.” Grensted, Laurence William. A Short History of the Doctrine of the Atonement. The University Press, 1920. p15.

Grensted, an Anglican priest, sees in this passage no precursor (or even resemblance) to later penal theories of the saving work of Christ. Rather the motive for the coming of the Logos and the whole of the economy of salvation is the overabundant love of God Who seeks us in our sins. There is no notion of God’s pent-up rage against humanity but we cannot forget that this is absent from the Scripture too. St. Paul tell us, “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Rom 5.8). Subsequently we not only share in Christ’s righteousness (as Grensted has stated), rather we share in the very Spirit of Christ as St Paul teaches,

“But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His.  And if Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin, but the Spirit is life because of righteousness. But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.” Romans 8.9-11.

By the Spirit of God, we are once again renewed into the very life of God, Life Itself. Through this most wonderful union, we become alive once more where we had been dead in sin (Eph 2.1., Col 2.13). By His union with us, His entering into our brokenness and death and His ascension into Heaven, Christ has renewed humanity by a union with the Divine. This is truly consummated at the sending of the Spirit where we are made temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6.19). Now we who have been baptized can put to death the life according to the flesh and live to God. This does not entail denying our corporeality in any way. God has given us the body that through it we may relate to one another and to the world which He has created for us. The ultimate use of the body is the pursuit not of the body’s pleasures and lusts, but the pursuit of self-giving love, self-sacrificial love. The love which we are taught by The Logos Who takes a body that He may lay it down for us. These precepts are laid out beautifully by St. Irenaeus of Lyons,

“Thus, without the Spirit of God, the flesh is dead, deprived of life, incapable of inheriting the Kingdom of God…But where the Father’s Spirit is, there also is living man; the flesh, possessed of an inheritance by the Spirit, forgets what it is so as to acquire the Spirit’s quality and comes into conformity with God’s Word [Logos].” St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, Book 5, Chapter 9, Tract 3.”

Thus we are now given the ability, through the Holy Spirit, to use our bodies as instruments of The Spirit rather than as being that which we follow and are drawn by. Christ shows us true humanity in the way He lays down His life for the sheep, this is the life of love we were intended to join with The Father, The Son, and The Holy Spirit Who dwell in perpetual love.

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