This ontological unfitness—the result of having been severed from the immortal life of God—is precisely the thing that humanity most needs to be saved from. Athanasius’ comments regarding the futility of repentance make this plain. Repentance, Athanasius argues, is not sufficient for salvation, for repentance does not address the more fundamental problem of corruption. He writes,
Repentance [does not] call men back from what is their nature—it merely stays them from acts of sin. Now if there were merely a misdemeanor in question, and not a consequent corruption, repentance were well enough. But if, when transgression had once gained a start, men became involved in that corruption which was their nature, and were deprived of the grace which they had, being in the image of God, what further step was needed?Athanasius views the corruption of sin as a curse that, in turn, invites the ultimate curse. Apart from divine intervention, whereby the source of life is once again restored to humanity, eternal decay must necessarily be the inevitable outcome. Eternal judgment then, upon sinful humanity, is the complete giving over of sinners to the corruption of their sin—a final and irrevocable severing from the divine light. Thus for the Athanasius, the ontological corruption due to sin is both the punishment upon humanity for Adam’s first act of disobedience, as well as the ground of culpability for his future posterity.
How then, is sinful man to be delivered? If for Athanasius culpability is grounded in ontological corruption, then it will not surprise us that his soteriology focuses on ontological renewal. For Athanasius, salvation is about the refashioning of the image of God within humanity through the believer’s participation in Christ’s death and resurrection.
Athanasius’ doctrine of atonement has a strong participationist element. The sinner participates in Christ’s death and resurrection in such a way that Christ’s death and resurrection becomes his own. This dying and rising with Christ is not merely positional/representative, but through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the benefits of Christ’s dying and rising are communicated to the Christian in such a way that the believer can truly be said to have died and risen (and will rise) with Christ.