So far on this blog I’ve discussed why I decided to explore Orthodox Christianity and given some background to this branch of faith, highlighting the main differences from Protestantism. In probing those differences, I’ve covered the Holy Tradition, the role of icons, and the role of Mary in Orthodox faith. However, the most crucial difference between Orthodoxy and Protestantism is their respective views of salvation – what it means to be “saved” by God. Of all the differences, this is the one I have struggled with the most.
Many writers and commentators I have seen in the course of my examination have liked to put the differences in terms of whether mankind is justified by faith alone (sola fide), or by a combination of faith and good works. Indeed, to my dismay I have seen some Orthodox defend their faith in such terms! It seems to me that this is more a problem of the language used, than where any real difference lies. I am completely convinced that both traditions regard salvation as being 100% dependent on the grace of God through faith, as is stated in Ephesians 2:8-9. Where the difference lies is in approach. Generally speaking, Protestantism is intellectual, metaphysical and fatalistic, while Orthodoxy is experiential, dualistic and mysterious. So you get very different thought patterns on this subject emerging.
The Protestant approach is to focus on Jesus’ saving acts as an event – a one-time thing that occurred at a specific point in history, that forever affects the eternal fate of mankind. It is something that has already happened, that Jesus has already done. It follows that mankind must choose how to respond. To be saved, we must accept this act as a sacrifice for all our sins. His sacrifice is a completed work, and once we accept it, we are assured of a place in Heaven. This gives us the freedom to love God and follow Him. Godly living is dependent not on our works or our efforts, but on trusting in the event of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection; an intellectual realization of what He has done for us which will permeate our lives with His Spirit and bear the spiritual fruit of Galatians 5:22-23.
There is a beauty and a simplicity to this sort of gospel, best encapsulated by hymn-writer Fanny Crosby: “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!” Assurance of salvation is, without a doubt, the main selling point of Protestantism. But is it too simple?
The Orthodox Christian would certainly say so. Firstly, Orthodoxy does not believe in predestination as understood and often taught by Protestants, though He created us to be of a certain nature, and foreknows all our actions. We have complete free will in how we interact with God. And while God does not change, and His promises toward us are assured, how we utilize our free will is not. We are unable to be 100% sure of our ability to walk with God in the future throughout the rest of our lives. Even Peter, who was confident he would never deny Jesus, did so within a short space of time. Likewise, Judas was an apostle and shared in Christ’s ministry, but fell away. To say that one is “assured” of salvation is to place confidence in the flesh – our flesh, rather than in God. It’s an interpretation of how we are saved that is, ironically, legalistic, rather than one based on God’s grace.
Instead, Orthodox believe that salvation is a process of theosis – becoming more like Christ, becoming God’s image (or icon, if you like), becoming who God originally intended us to be before the Fall. This occurs through the Holy Spirit, by the grace of God, through the faith He has given us. But God requires our co-operation and our ongoing vigilance in these matters. We do not pass from death to life intellectually, or in our spirit, at a fixed point in this life – there is no Billy Graham moment where we make a “decision for Christ” and we are “saved” from that point forward. It is true that God knows our hearts, and that, like the thief on the Cross next to Jesus, we can live a deeply sinful life, and yet appeal for Him to remember us in His Kingdom at the last and be saved. But for most of us, the decision to repent and follow does not represent the end of our earthly lives, but represents the first step of the journey into Life. We are saved by faith alone, as Paul tells us, but it is ongoing faith that must be committed to with mind, body, soul and spirit, on a daily basis. And as James the Just tells us, faith that is not shown by deeds is dead, and cannot save us.
In this view, salvation is not just a ticket to heaven for our soul and spirit at the end of our lives. It is a gradual renewal of our whole being on a daily basis as we live out this life, and pass on to the next. And this renewal must be sought on an ongoing basis, through physically living out our faith.
This new (or old!) way of looking at salvation has been by far the most challenging aspect of Orthodoxy for me. Intellectual, event based salvation, with its Country Club “in or out” view of Christianity is so pervasive that adjusting one’s thinking to something different can be very hard. The Protestant doctrine of assurance, based on predestination, can also be very difficult, and frightening, to let go of, and initially when I studied Orthodox salvation I felt cheated – like I was giving something precious up in exchange for something less. Without assurance it can appear that the only alternative is salvation based on human effort, and every religion teaches that! But of course, the opposite is true, because in rejecting predestined assurance, we are no longer presuming our future faithfulness, but relying on God’s grace to maintain our faithfulness. And God’s grace is assured. His promises are faithful and true. We stop relying on ourselves, or an inaccurate view of ourselves, and start relying completely on Jesus this way.
It remains to rebut the charge that Orthodoxy is not properly Christian because it is “salvation through works”. It is true that Orthodoxy is loudly and proudly overt about its physical nature and the set prayers, fasts, sacraments and liturgies that constitute the religious activity that follows from being part of the Church. But is Protestantism in all its many forms any less “religious”? Protestants are told to pray, read their Bibles, and worship with others – the distinction seems rather fine. The reality is that most Protestant churches themselves encourage people to live their faith by these means, and that without this activity, a Christian can only be so in name only. As the old bumper sticker says, “If you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” Orthodoxy is no different. To quote the 19th Century Russian Orthodox Monk Seraphim of Sarov:
“Prayer, fasting, vigil and all other Christian activities, however good they may be in themselves, do not constitute the aim of our Christian life, although they serve as the indispensable means of reaching this end. The true aim of our Christian life consists in the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God. As for fasts, and vigils, and prayer, and almsgiving, and every good deed done for Christ’s sake, they are only means of acquiring the Holy Spirit of God. But mark, my son, only the good deed done for Christ’s sake brings us the fruits of the Holy Spirit. All that is not done for Christ’s sake, even though it be good, brings neither reward in the future life nor the grace of God in this.”
There is no Christian faith without it being displayed through Christian religion, and no Christian religion can save if it is not inspired by Christian faith. That seems an obvious hallmark of both the Orthodox and Protestant traditions, whatever armchair theologians may have to say on the subject.