By Joseph Mangina

When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance. So runs the first of Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses. But if we are summoned to repent at all times, Lent is the particular season in the Christian year when we are called to acknowledge our transgressions, ask God’s forgiveness, and mend our ways. Preachers are quick to remind us that repentance is not simply a matter of feeling bad about ourselves but of taking practical, concrete steps of turning around (Hebrew shuv means “return”) and changing the way we live.

Yet as we all know, it is never quite so simple as all that. If the penitent could re-order his life by a heroic act of will, the Christian life would be a much more straightforward affair. We would soon be able to “get our act together.” But Pelagius was wrong and Augustine right. We cannot get our act together, because we are the problem. In the words of the immortal Pogo: “We have met the Enemy, and he is us”: that is the Augustinian doctrine of sin in a nutshell. And because this is the case, sterner measures are called for. God himself must intervene to give us new minds, new hearts, even new selves. “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Ps. 51:17). So prays the psalmist, in what is probably the most famous of the seven penitential psalms (6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143).

Who is the speaker in this psalm? The superscription tells us that it is David, repenting of his sins against Bathsheba and Uriah. But David and all the human voices that come to expression in the Psalms may also be understood as the voice of Christ. This, at any rate, was Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s reading. In his Prayerbook of the Bible he writes: “It is the incarnate Son of God who has borne all human weakness in his own flesh, who here [viz. in the Psalms] pours out the heart of all humanity before God, and who stands in our place and prays for us.”[1] Thus it is Jesus who confesses to God:


Against you only have I sinned *
and done what is evil in your sight.
And so you are justified when you speak *
and upright in your judgment. …
The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit; *
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

On this reading, Christ comes before the Father as the Great Penitent. He, the spotless Lamb who knew no sin, assumes responsibility for ours; this is one version of the New Testament and patristic theme of the Blessed Exchange (admirabile commercium). In modern theology a number of thinkers have placed this penitential motif at the very heart of their doctrine of the atonement. Examples include the 19th century Scottish Presbyterian J. McCleod Campbell, and in the 20th century such luminaries as C.S. Lewis and T.F. Torrance.

Nor is it only Western Christians who talk this way. In his extraordinary book Deification Through the Cross: An Eastern Christian Theology of Salvation, Khaled Anatolios makes the case for an understanding of salvation (atonement in particular) as “doxological contrition.” Anatolios, a Melkite Greek Catholic who teaches at Notre Dame, cites approvingly all three of the Western authors just named. But his own point of departure is the Byzantine liturgy. The “foundational dynamic of the liturgy,” Anatolios writes, “Is its dynamic synthesis … of sorrow over sins and the celebration of divine glory” (81).[2] It is this synthesis that gives to Eastern Christianity its characteristic emotional coloring of “bright sadness,” a term Anatolios borrows from the great Alexander Schmemann (36).[3]

Anatolios is alert to the dangers of a Pelagianism of repentance, in which the sinner’s turning to God earns or effects her salvation. We are anything but naturally disposed to repent of our sins. Repentance is a gift that must be prayed for. Consider this prayer from the Orthodox service book known as The Lenten Triodion:

I have no tears, no repentance, no compunction; but as God, do you yourself, O Savior, bestow them on me. … O Lover of humankind, who desires that all people shall be saved, in your goodness call me back and accept me in repentance. (77)

Notice that this prayer is addressed to Christ. Throughout the book, Anatolios is at pains to emphasize what he calls the “Christomorphic structure of repentance” (89). Indeed, as the book unfolds it becomes clear that the detailed analysis of Byzantine liturgy is primarily a means to an end. For what Anatolios is really after is a consistent view of Christ’s person and work understood as vicarious doxological contrition. Any repentance we undertake, any sorrow or compunction we may experience, are made possible only because Christ himself has done what we could not: truthfully confess our sin before God, and offer up the glory due the Lord’s Name.

Although Anatolios does not quite put it this way, we might say that on his account Jesus just is the Bright Sadness of God. His self-identification with sinful Israel at his baptism marks the way he will follow. The penitential motif in the synoptic Gospels is complemented by the Johannine emphasis on the divine glory; yet as Anatolios correctly notes, the synoptics are not without moments of glory (the Transfiguration, the Resurrection), while there are penitential themes in John (for what is Johannine faith, if not a turning from the darkness to the Light?). Anatolios also does an excellent job of tracing the theme of repentance in Israel’s Scriptures. His textured reading of Moses’ intervention for the people in Exodus 32 is a skillful exercise in the theological interpretation of Scripture.

Anatolios’s theory, as I said earlier, is a version of the patristic Blessed Exchange. Its Christological anchor is the Council of Ephesus as read in light of Cyril and Maximus Confessor. Indeed, the christology is at the heart of the book: it is precisely the incarnational exchange that prevents the reduction of Christ’s work to a merely human act of repentance. Christ’s divine-human life, death, and resurrection just is the reality of our salvation, in which we participate by faith and baptism and ongoing discipleship. “We have met the Great Penitent, and he is (for) us.” This is good news indeed.

If I had any quibble about the book, it is that atonement viewed as doxological contrition seems to short-circuit the radicality of the admirabile commercium. Anatolios himself names the problem: “Whereas the New Testament tells us that we are ‘justified by his blood’ (Rom. 5:9), a soteriology based on Christ’s contrition seems to attribute salvific efficacy only to Jesus’s interior psychological condition and not to his actual suffering and death” (406). Anatolios seeks to answer this objection, in effect, by insisting on the importance of the public display of God’s love for humanity at the cross. He cites René Girard on this theme; he might just as well have mentioned Abelard. Similar issues come to the fore in his wonderfully charitable engagement with J.I. Packer, that “church father” of evangelical Anglicanism. In the end, Anatolios rejects the penal theory, but not before considering it in its strongest form, as represented by Packer. His own vicarious account approaches a soteriology of substitution when he writes: “Christ takes the place of sinners as the ideal penitent who lovingly accepts God’s rejection of sin as an inalienable element of the adorable glory of God.” Or again, we may not speak of Christ as being absolutely Godforsaken, “but only of Christ’s suffering the pain of the abhorrence of and condemnation of sin in light of his perfect vision and adoration of the glory of God” (419).

Yet this last formula still seems a bit too “psychological.” I wonder if the solution to the dilemma might be found in Anatolios’s citation of Romans 5:9, “justified by his blood.” Might not a more bodily, realistic identification of Christ with sinners be achieved by a greater use of cultic categories? Might not the cultic offer a helpful corrective to Western theology’s over-reliance on forensic notions? This emphasis would fit nicely with Anatolios’s own salutary emphasis on the centrality of worship to soteriology. While I agree with his critique of penal substitution, I think his own theory would only be strengthened by incorporating a view of the cross as cultic sacrifice. Ephraim Radner’s creative work on Leviticus and George Hunsinger’s on Philippians could point the way here.[4]

That being said, however, Anatolios is right in a great deal of what he affirms. Our repentance is not so much an imitation of Christ, as simply the shape of Christian life itself as it unfolds “in” him. Lent is a time of bright sadness. Jesus, the Great Penitent, is at the same time the perfect manifestation of the divine glory. It is in the beholding of that glory that our hearts are set free to acknowledge the truth about ourselves, confident that God seeks not to destroy but to restore his lost creature. In the words of the Collect for Ash Wednesday:

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have
made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and
make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily
lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness,
may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission
and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives
and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever
and ever.  Amen.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Works, volume 5 (Fortress Press, 1996), 159-160.

[2] All page numbers in parentheses refer to Anatolios, Deification.

[3] See Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent: Journey to Pascha (St. Vladimir’s Press, 1974), 31-33; cited in Anatolios, 36.

[4] Ephraim Radner, Leviticus, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2008); George Hunsinger, Philippians, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2021).

About The Author

Joseph (Joe) Mangina is professor of theology at Wycliffe College, Toronto.

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