Christ Died for the Ungodly


For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him. For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. And not only that, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation. (Romans 5:6-11)

St John Chrysostom comments on the generous love of Christ who dies for us sinners (since we cannot save ourselves from enslavement to sin and death) in order to save us from death.

Let us celebrate this greatest and most shining feast, in which the Lord has risen from the dead. Let us celebrate it with joy, and in equal measure with devotion. For the Lord has risen, and together with him he has raised the whole world. He has risen, because he has broken the bonds of death.


Adam sinned, and died. Christ did not sin; yet he died. This is strange and wondrous: the one sinned and died, the Other sinned not, yet he died. And why was this? So that by His aid Who did not sin, he might be freed from the grasp of death, who had sinned and died. So will it happen with regard to money. Oftentimes a man will owe a debt, and not having the means to pay, he is put in bonds. Another who owes no debt, and has the means to pay, will deliver him who is liable to punishment. So did it happen with Adam. Adam was a debtor, and was held in bonds by the devil. But he had not the means to pay his debt, period. Christ was not a debtor, nor was he under the power of the devil, but he had the means to pay this debt. He came, and for the one held prisoner by the devil suffered death, to deliver him.   (DAILY READINGS FROM THE WRITINGS OF ST JOHN CHRYSOSTOM, p 118)


For Chrysostom the issue is that we humans by sinning against God made ourselves slaves to Death. Christ who does not sin is freed from any claims Death might have over Him. When Death takes Christ, it has shown itself to be unjust and evil, an enemy of God. As Christ voluntarily submits Himself to death in order to destroy death, so too we are to die with Christ in order to share in the resurrection.

This is the basic pattern of Christian life: one has to die with Christ, to share in His death in order to rise with Him and to share in the new life, which, as it were, shines from the tomb of the crucified.   (Matthew Baker, ON THE TREE OF THE CROSS, p 159)

On Holy Friday we remember not just Christ’s suffering, but His victory over death. We remember His death because it is through His death that we all enter into eternal life. The goodness of Holy Friday is God’s victory over sin and death. We remember this event in order to participate in Christ’s death, to be united with Him in death so that we can be united with Him in His resurrection in which He tramples down death.


[A historical note about our liturgical celebration of Christ’s victory over death on Holy Friday. Today most Orthodox churches begin reading the passion Gospels on Thursday evening. Currently the practice is to read 12 passion Gospels in what is the Matins service of Holy Friday on Thursday evening. Matins is the sunrise service of the Church, and it is a little strange that in Holy Week Matins nowadays is served in the evening.  There is a ‘pious’ explanation for doing Matins in the evening which says this is done in ‘anticipation’, but surely this is a late explanation for something that was already being done.  Moving Matins to the evening before was probably done for pastoral reasons to allow people to attend since they wouldn’t be able to attend in the morning because of work but they might come in the evening. This is a big liturgical change of the church to move morning services to the evening and tells us that liturgical change is both possible and always ongoing in the Orthodox Church. They didn’t celebrate Matins (morning prayer) in the evening in ancient times as that wouldn’t make sense.  In any case because so many hymns repeat between Vespers and Matins it seems to make little difference which service people would attend as they would get basically the same theological content in the hymns.


Additionally, now twelve Gospel lessons are read for Holy Friday Matins, but this too changed through the centuries. Thomas Pott is his book, BYZANTINE LITURGICAL REFORM, notes that in past centuries the number of Gospel readings varied from century to century and in different regions of the world. He says, “… ‘the pure Constantinopolitan tradition had only a single, ordinary orthros, without the gospels, and which, as on all Fridays of Lent, had the office of … [Ter-sext] as the only office for the day. In Constantinople, as is indicated in the Typikon of the Great Church, the Presanctified Liturgy was celebrated on Holy Friday, just as on every Friday during Great Lent”(p 182). As Potts comments the more ancient practice was to do a regular Lenten matins on Holy Friday morning without any Gospel readings and then do a Presanctified Communion service in the evening. Having a Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts on Holy Friday is the older tradition which eventually gets dropped in practice and today’s Orthodox piety says it is wrong to have Communion on Holy Friday even though that was the practice in more ancient times.  What happens through the centuries is that the Greek love for dramas pushed the liturgical services of Holy Week to become more like a passion play in which the liturgical celebrants are re-enacting the events in Christ’s life. In ancient Christian Jerusalem, they could move the liturgical services around the city to what they thought were the actual locations where events in the Holy Friday narrative occurred. At each location they read the appropriate Gospel lesson not following the more ancient practice of doing the usual Matins (sunrise) and Vespers (sunset). They made the services of Holy Friday “special” for the day which then called for further liturgical changes.  While earlier in Christian history, Holy Friday was about Christ’s victory over death, eventually this gets replaced with a re-enactment theme, as if we are going through the events in Christ’s life in real time.  This changed the focus of Holy Friday from Christ’s victory to Christ’s suffering and made piety focus more on Christ’s human pain then on His cosmic victory. The idea was not to leap over Christ’s suffering to celebrate the victorious resurrection but the piety came to focus on the suffering of Christ (which then spread to the entirety of Lent) and with the faithful in some way participating in the suffering (for example through fasting, long services, making prostrations, and in more extreme cases various forms of self-flagellation.)


Originally, on Holy Friday they were simply doing the canonical daily matins in the morning and Vespers (with Communion) in the evening. The services became more complex and more a dramatic re-enactment of events as the centuries wear on. Potts reports that an early 11th Century document shows they read 11 Gospels, while the earliest known lectionaries (those of Armenia and Georgia) show 7 and 8 Gospel readings respectively (pp 174-175).  Liturgical practice changes through the centuries to meet pastoral needs, and really should continue to do so. There is no reason to assume that what Orthodox parishes are currently doing must always be done because what is currently done is a change from the more ancient practices. The Orthodox today can evaluate what their current pastoral needs are and how best to teach or evangelize people in the modern era by adapting to current needs. However, today many in Orthodoxy seem to prefer an almost monolithic liturgical conformity throughout the Orthodox world (but probably only if it conforms to what they are currently doing in their parish). Whereas the ancient Church had much more diversity in practice as can be seen in any history books about the development of the Orthodox liturgies. The unity of Orthodoxy is not in its liturgical conformity but is supposed to be in the members love for one another.]

One thought on “Christ Died for the Ungodly

  1. Cindy

    “In ancient Christian Jerusalem, they could move the liturgical services around the city to what they thought were the actual locations where events in the Holy Friday narrative occurred. At each location they read the appropriate Gospel lesson not following the more ancient practice of doing the usual Matins (sunrise) and Vespers (sunset).”
    This must be how Stations of the Cross originated. Catholics still do this on Fridays throughout Lent. Good Friday isn’t a celebration, it’s a time to reflect. Those who witnessed the crucifixion had no idea what they would discover Easter morning. If we go into the desert with Christ during Lent, we must join Him at the cross as well on Good Friday.

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