What is the Orthodox understanding of salvation? The Orthodox understand that “salvation” is the term used to describe deliverance from sin and death, union with Christ, and abiding with God forever in eternity.
From what do we need to be saved?
The Orthodox Church teaches that mankind is separated from Almighty God by sin and cannot by its own merits break through this great chasm. However, God in His immense love for mankind reaches across this separation and becomes man in Christ. Consequently, because of Christ’s incarnation, death and resurrection, mankind is freed from the slavery and power of sin and everlasting death. This is known as “redemption” and is the central message of the Orthodox Christian Faith. St. Paul explains it as such by relating that Christ shared our poverty so that we might become rich:
Our Lord Jesus Christ, though He was rich, yet for your sake became poor that you, through His poverty, might become rich (saved).
2 Corinthians 8:9
Titus 3:4-5 states “He saved us not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration (actualised in Baptism) and renewal of the Holy Spirit (actualised in Chrismation).” The redemptive work of Christ is indeed a gift, without which none could be saved. No good works can earn this. Following Baptism however, we are to “walk in the way of salvation”. Baptism is the beginning of a journey, the first rung of the ladder. Grace and faith are our helpers on this journey.
In Ephesians 2:8-9 St. Paul states “For by grace you are saved, through faith, it is a gift from God not of works lest any man should boast.” We need to study what is meant by “grace” and “faith”.
Grace is the word used to describe the assistance, mercy and good will of a loving and compassionate God to those who seek His assistance. Christ’s redeeming death, resurrection and ascension was an act of grace. Also, the Fathers of the Church see grace as power, coming through the work of the Holy Spirit, which transforms lives. This transformation takes place over the lifespan of an individual. In Philippians 2:12-13 St. Paul says “not only in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure”. The Orthodox view of grace is that it calls to all but compels no one. We need to work together with God and this co-operative effort is called “synergy”, meaning a combining of energies. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock, if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will enter” Revelation 3:20. Each time we partake of the Eucharist we invite the grace of God to work in our lives through the work of the Holy Spirit. We are also sanctified (set apart for holiness) and illumined by the hearing of scripture and the ministry of the Word.
Faith is the power given to us by God that enables us to believe what He has revealed to us. Faith is necessary for salvation but according to James 2:14-20 our faith must be accompanied by good works, as a sign that we are indeed infused with faith.
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?
St. Gregory of Rome said the following: "Perhaps each of you will say to himself, ‘I have believed, I shall be saved.’ He speaks what is true if by faith he joins good works. That is indeed true faith, which does not deny in work what it professes in word. For this St. Paul says of certain false faithful, ‘They profess that they know God; but in their works they do deny Him, being abominable, disobedient, and disqualified for every good work’. For John also says: ‘He who says that He knows God, and keeps not His Commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him’.”
In our search for truth it is sometimes necessary to hold on to two or more apparently contradicting concepts eg: God is both One God and three persons; Christ is one person but two natures. The same applies to the topic of salvation. God’s grace and our co-operation are both required. Christ’s work of redemption is a work of grace, but to receive it we need to practise active faith. However, we must always remember that God grants mercy to whomever He wishes. The thief on the cross was neither baptised nor able to practise active faith. We however are not to presume on God’s mercy by looking at this story and assuming that a simple statement of faith on one occasion, like the thief made, is all that is necessary. After all Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell all he had in answer to his question “What must I do to be saved?” and Jesus granted salvation to Zaccheus when he repented. The Philippian jailor seemed only to need to believe, and being a Gentile this had to be his first step. It is however interesting to note that he and his household were baptised following his declaration of faith. As with all topics, we need to beware of looking at one single verse when studying the subject of salvation. Each occurrence of the subject in the Scriptures must be considered and compared with all the others and in its context.
Salvation is a process
The concept that salvation is a process from Baptism until death is part of Orthodox belief and there is ample support for this idea in the Scriptures. There is no indication that by pronouncing a simple formula of trust in Jesus we may be saved in an instant. To say that all we have to do is receive it like “fire insurance” requires a strong filter on one’s Bible reading. See for example Christ’s words in Matthew 7:21 “not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’, will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” Also, St. Paul’s words in Romans 2:6 “He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, he will give eternal life.” Also in 1 Corinthians 9:27, St. Paul expresses a fear that after preaching to others he himself might be disqualified, and so he disciplines his body.
There is no place for pride in our works since only by God's grace can we achieve them, yet there is no doubt that they are an essential part of the plan of salvation .
When studying the scriptures in connection with the topic of salvation we find mention of our sinfulness, repentance, baptism, carrying our cross, doing to the least of these, entering by the narrow gate, running the race, confidence in God's love and mercy, fear of falling away, and putting on the new nature. It is a mistake to pick on one aspect of salvation and reinterpret everything else to fit it. The parable of the goats and the sheep is to be taken as seriously as Ephesians 2:8-9.
On many points where a non-Orthodox wants an either/or answer an Orthodox will insist on both/and.
In conclusion, we can say that salvation relies on God's mercy and is only made possible through Christ's incarnation and death on the cross. Our faith, repentance and Christian struggle, enabled through His grace, are however, also necessary on this journey. The sacraments of Baptism, Chrismation and regular Communion are ways we may be strengthened and enabled by the Holy Spirit as we “walk in the way of salvation.”