Some continuing thoughts on salvation…
One of the weaknesses of theology over the past number of centuries has been an occasional lapse into viewing the category of morality has simply a category of our actions. In that sense, moral has to do with behavior, not with existence. It is how we act, not what we are.
As I say, this is a problem, because it leads us into very problematic ways of seeing ourselves and our relationship with God – most especially it makes us tend to think that our problems are ultimately external and legal, rather than internal and existential (a matter of our very existence).
Stated more correctly – morality is a description of the symptoms of the disease of sin, not simply a laundry list of things done wrong. We do wrong things because there is something wrong with us.
Therefore the only ways of addressing the things we do wrong, is addressing ourselves, or what is wrong with us. Thus saving (or healing) a sinner, means not legally treating the actions which have been wrong, but healing the wrongness within us that has led to the actions.
In this we can say that Christ did not come to make bad men be good – but to make dead men live. St. Paul makes a very strong identification between sin and death (“the wages of sin is death” Romans 6:23). In Orthodox hymnography this is often spoken of as “corruption” this being a translation of the Greek word, “phthora.” What is at work in us (as we have broken our relationship with the God who is Life) is a process of corruption and decay, death working in us to our destruction before God.
It should not be in the least surprising that such death-at-work-in-us produces diseased actions. We hate, we blame, we curse, we kill (how long could the list be?) because we are spiritually dead, or at least have a process of spiritual death at work in us.
Thus our salvation can only take place as a change within us. We must become alive where we have been dead. It is in this manner that the Scriptures tell us that we are Baptized into Christ’s death and raised in the likeness of His resurrection. The language of union and communion that suffuses the Scriptures of the New Testament bear witness to this understanding.
The development of an “external” understanding of morality is a fairly late development within Christianity, associated more with the Enlightenment than with any particular Christian body or group. It has been the bane of Christian existence whenever it takes on strength. It was part of the poison that infected the Deism of many of the founders of the modern world (cf. the religion of Thomas Jefferson). Such externalized descriptions of human behavior have led to a wrong understanding of man, of God, and of human relationships. In some cases it has contributed to various utopian visions that have triggered schemes of mass murder (in the name of a “new” man).
The problem of me is not my actions – but the me who does the actions. I need to change, or something within me must change. Nothing less than the very Life of God, grafted within us can heal what is lacking and broken. This is the process of salvation that is given to us in our life in the Church.
I will conclude with this short thought: the new life that is given to us in Christ, is more than a greater quantity of the “life” with which we were born – it is more than what I have known as an individual. It is a “relationship” (it cannot be described in a manner that does not include persons other than myself), and it is not “of me.” It is partly in this sense that the new life that is ours in Christ must also be understood as life “within the Church.” When St. Cyprian once said that there is no salvation outside the Church, it can be understood to mean that there is no such salvation because salvation is what the Church looks like. More on that later….