Wondrous is God in His saints (Ps. 67 LXX)
We confess, “I believe in one holy, catholic, apostolic Church.” Last week I posted What is Holiness? One reader wrote to ask, “What, then, are no other Christians, apart from Orthodox, holy?”
After my first visit to an Orthodox parish, late on a Saturday night, I sat with the priest on the front porch, and he patiently listened to me tell him why Orthodoxy could not possibly be the Church. He exercised remarkable forbearance. But when I told him that in my own Pentecostal tradition God answers prayers, people are set free from life-controlling sins by faith, and they gain holiness… then he interrupted, shocked, “Oh, surely not!”
I had no idea what he meant – clearly in saying “holiness,” I had used a word that meant something different to him. I let it lie and moved on.
I still would never deny that God sovereignly bestows grace where He will. Outside the covenant people of God, Barlaam prophesied truly by grace (albeit against his will), and Melchizedek was never part of Abraham’s covenant, but his God is our God and he is numbered among the saints. But these are exceptions which serve to illumine the rule. “In every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him” (Acts 10:35) but to be mercifully accepted by God, and to enter into His holiness here and now in our present experience, are not the same.
I’ve been reminded several times this week of Elder Porphyrios of Athens, whose later life was characterized by an overflow of miracles. He was a man who had one foot so firmly in another world that it seemed the laws of nature became optional around him. That is a soul healed, purified, illumined by grace, and beginning to experience union with God. I have been privileged to know a few monastics who, though certainly imperfect, radiated a peace, order, and wholeness that made it sweet just to be with them.
It’s embarrassing to admit, but my first exposure to the claims of Jesus as Lord was in the book The Late Great Planet Earth, where I was told that if I didn’t confess Christ as Lord, I would surely be left behind in the Rapture. I had been prepared by months of increasing hunger for God and reading the Gospels, and this Dispensationalist apologetic was what introduced me to the necessity of intentional faith, and of becoming a disciple of Christ. Dispensationalism sold me on the idea of Christianity, but it is not what has kept me Christian. It’s the saints that have done that.
In the lives of saints, and to a certain extent in personal exposure to living Orthodox ascetics, I have seen a life and power that attract me and make me want it for myself. The saints, throughout our history, say in harmony that if you want what they’ve got (theoria) then here is action (praxis) that will make it possible: Internalize certain propositions (dogma), act on them in specific ways (liturgy, ascesis), and above all act out of trust in the Person of Jesus Christ whom they describe (faith), and the same grace that acts in them will act in you.
I’ve been a Protestant. I’ve lived among Catholics and Muslims in the Philippines and Libya, and with Hindus and Buddhists in the Nepalese, Indian and Vietnamese community here and in Nepal. I’ve visited Catholics and Buddhist monastic communities and temples. I’ve met dear and wise people of many faiths and learned from them. But outside the Orthodox Church I have not met anyone who made me want to sell everything and buy the Pearl they demonstrate that they own.
That’s a totally subjective answer. But since I cordially dislike what is usually offered as “apologetics,” all I can offer is firsthand testimony. No message is more credible than its messenger, so in my experience I have as much success with this approach as I have earned credibility by my own life and actions.