My life in the South has been marked by the question, “Are you saved?” As a child, street preachers from the local fundamentalist protestant college would hold forth in front of the Dollar Store (which was also the bus stop), guaranteeing something of a captive audience. The question in that context had a simple meaning:
a. you are born with the sin and guilt of Adam
b. you are thus deserving of hell.
c. only by accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior can you be saved from those punishing flames.
d. Jesus is a God’s substitution who suffered the penalty which I deserved.
I know this sounds caricatured or may fail to do justice to the complete teaching of the Substitutionary Atonement, but it is as complete a version as was preached on the streets, or in the pulpits of my native South Carolina hometown.
By age 13 certain contradictions within this account of salvation became obvious to me. For one, the problem of extrinsic righteousness. I didn’t know that was the term for a righteousness that is understood solely in terms of my legal standing before God – but it was certainly what I had been taught. The problem with it is that it seemed to me to lack something.
One thing it lacked, was an actual change in me. Everyone I knew did not want to go to hell (who would), but I can’t honestly say that I knew many people who wanted to go to heaven for heaven’s sake. Heaven only seemed desireable as an alternative lifestyle. Indeed, the idea of praising God forever and ever sounded boring beyond belief.
Thus it was that at around age 13 I came to not believe in God, or, at least, not in the God I had been told about. It seemed too boring, too beside the point and even childish. I was interested in God (if there was one) but not in that one.
I could expand on this – and probably will at some time in the future. But I had arrived at a fairly precocious age where many people in our culture have reached: atheism as the rejection of a false gospel.
Today I have learned to say to atheists: “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in; I may not believe in that God either.”
I’ll pick up the autobiography another time – but I will leap ahead today to a question I sometimes hear from local Protestants when they are asking me about Orthodoxy (I am not infrequently the only Orthodox Christian some people have met around here). That question is: “Do you believe in salvation by grace?”
Now this is a better question than, “Are you saved.” And it is able to be answered more easily from an Orthodox perspective. The answer is simply, “We not only believe in salvation by grace, we think that grace is what salvation itself actually is.”
This is to say: We believe that grace is nothing other than the very Life of God. What is wrong with us as human beings (sinners) is that we have cut ourselves off from this Life of God. We have rejected Him, and rather than walking in the Light of His Life, we walk in darkness and do deeds of darkness, hurting one another and distorting yet further the image of God within us. Thus salvation is turning to God and “uniting ourselves to Him.” We believe this happens in our acceptance of Him as Lord and Savior, and is sealed within us in Holy Baptism, nourished by Holy Communion, and every action of our life together as the Body of Christ. Grace is not simply how we are saved, it is the very content of our salvation.
I could draw fine points and say that this salvation by, in, with and through the Grace of God also requires our cooperation, but still this means only that we must live in relationship with God as persons, that is in relationships of love and freedom. Any other kind of relationship would be a distortion of what God has for us in union with Him.
We are saved by grace, by the very Life of God, but most obviously, this salvation is a process, or must be seen as something of a process. “Do you believe that you can lose your salvation?” Some Baptists in the area ask.
We believe that, despite the love of God, despite the steadfastness and complete commitment of God to us, we can in fact still exercise freedom to turn away from God. We not only believe this is so, the Church has seen this any number of times. “Demas hath forsaken me, having loved this present world,” (2 Timothy 4:10), Paul writes with haunting implications. The word “Apostasy” would mean nothing if there were no possibility of “falling away.” Indeed, Scripture speaks of a “falling away” that will occur (2 Thessalonians 3:3) before the end of all things.
And yet we hope in God. But to the question, “Are you saved?” Orthodoxy is always hesitant. We would not ask the question that way, because it is not a Scriptural question. “Have you united yourself to Christ?” is the question placed at Holy Baptism.
But away from all theory – the simple reality is the grace of God, the very Life of God Himself. Do I live in union with His Life? Do I yield myself to Him at every moment? Do I understand that His Life is my life, and that my true self can only be found in Him? These are the questions of salvation questions worth asking, not only of myself, but with my closet friend, with my priest, with someone. What else in life could have such importance?
Perhaps as important as any of those questions is the fact that the Orthodox understanding of salvation presumes a change in me. Salvation is not extrinsic, but works in the inner person, transforming us and conforming us to the image of Christ.
I am aware that the West placed much of this thought into a category of “sanctification,” but this can also be to make it secondary instead of primary.
It is primary because without an inner change we remain what we are and the possibility of honest, true fellowship with God remains impaired, not to speak of honest, true fellowship with one another.
I have found it to be important that those who are living the Orthodox faith together in Church always remember that they themselves need to be changed and are not yet what they are going to become, and that those around them need to be changed and are not yet what they are going to become. With that understanding, we can practice mercy