In the western Christian world, “saved” is a static concept. One either is or isn’t saved. The only difference among the various heterodox Christian confessions is how one acquires this state of salvation. For the Orthodox Christian, salvation is not something static. Salvation is iconic.
A person is saved, ultimately and fully, when he or she is conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. That is, salvation is to be an icon of Jesus Christ. In as much as someone is not an exact icon of Jesus Christ, we can say that the person is not yet saved. However, conforming to the image of Jesus Christ is a process. The Church uses many words to refer to different aspects of this process: sanctification, repentance, illumination, deification, purification, transformation, healing, etc. In as much as a person is in the process of being conformed to the image of Jesus Christ, we can say that the person is saved. That is, a person is saved because he or she has submitted to a process, vouchsafed (guaranteed) by God to be successful, so long as he or she continues to submit to the process. Jesus said, “He who endures to the end shall be saved.” It is in reference to this progressive sense of salvation that we pray, “Most Holy Theotokos save us!” In our various and often intense struggles to turn from self absorption to Christ absorption (filling our mind with self versus filling our mind with Christ), we are saved (yet another sense in which the Church uses this word) by the help of many people in our life. One of the most important sources of help is the grace of God that comes to us through the intercession of those who have gone before us in the faith—particularly the help that comes from the Mother of God.
And still there is another sense in which Orthodox Christians use the word “saved.” Every human being–the entire universe, in fact–has been saved through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In this sense, everyone and everything is already saved. Every human being will participate in the resurrection of the dead on the Last Day. The entire universe will be transformed through a burning heat, St. Peter tells us. How each man and woman has prepared for that final resurrection, the Day of Salvation, will determine what they will experience. Some will experience the joy of their Lord as they find themselves face to face with the One whose image they have striven to conform to (or rather to be conformed to). Others will experience weeping and gnashing of teeth as they are unable to hide from the Reality that they spent their whole life trying to avoid, as they fully comprehend the salvation so dearly purchased for them and which they had so callously despised.
Some have said that salvation is a reality in three tenses: I have been saved, I am being saved and I will be saved. This too is a way the Church tries to communicate the mystery of salvation. In the end though, salvation is a mystery and any concepts or explanations ultimately fall short of explaining it exactly. And because we cannot explain any mystical reality in human terms or categories, perhaps, following the example of the Church Fathers, the best we can do is say what salvation is not. Salvation is not static.
Thinking about what salvation is not…
Salvation is not a legal transaction.
Salvation is not an event.
Salvation is not individualistic.
Salvation is not escape from the wrath of God.
Salvation is not a scarce commodity.
Salvation is not easy or glib.