Saved by Faith Plus What?

I was asked this week if Orthodox Christians believe we are saved by faith alone, or by works, or by faith and works?

The fact is that “Saved by faith” and “Saved by faith plus something” both point to a modern Evangelical concept of salvation as a thing one has or doesn’t have, a thing one gains or loses.

But salvation in English translates a word that means healing, wholeness, deliverance, rescue, and safety.

Salvation is a change in us, not a change in God’s attitude to us. After all it is not God who has a problem and needs to change; it’s us. Here and now in this life, as we cooperate with the personal action of God that we call “Grace,” we begin to become participants in the nature of God (2 Peter 1:4, John 15).

In Evangelical Sunday school we learned “Grace is unmerited favor” – which is not only not in the Bible, it’s just wrong. Grace is God in action. Grace is our firsthand experience of divine intervention strengthening, empowering, enabling, and anointing us to do the impossible. We can cooperate with Grace and be made holy as He is holy — or resist, and turn all our own energies inward toward our appetites and egos and fears.

Pretty much every Evangelical I’ve ever known believed in “getting saved,” or “assurance of salvation,” and spoke of justification as something imputed by God. (One symptom of this is when folks become uncomfortable if you don’t distinguish sanctification from salvation.)

When Evangelicals disagree over whether one can lose salvation or not, they reveal that they are thinking of “salvation” as a thing, not as the ongoing action of God making us whole from our sins.

It’s interesting to read the sermons in the Acts of the Apostles. They’re presentations of Christ as the promised King of Israel, and the call to action is repentance and loyalty to this King. The Bible has a Gospel of the Kingdom, but it doesn’t seem to have a gospel about going to heaven.

Followup question: Playing Protestant’s advocate, how does that interact with forgiveness of sins and the final judgement? Those *feel* like they have to do with God’s attitude toward us.

I think those are two different questions…

Much of Evangelicalism has reduced the scope of “getting saved” to a mere pardon, or a legal fiction where God the Father pretends it is you and I who suffered on the cross and therefore he is free to declare us free from the imputation of guilt. (cf. The Four Spiritual Laws)

The problem, of course, is the alien concept that God can’t forgive us until punishment has been executed. (Any sentence that begins “God can’t” is going to be problematic. Who is this rule-making authority to whom God is subject?)

In fact, in Matthew 18:21ff, the Lord shows us that God really can and does forgive, without punishing at all, because it is what he wants to do and no one can stop him. Want to be forgiven? Just ask! God delights to see you free from shame and guilt, so that you can go and sin no more.

Orthodox Christians don’t teach that being forgiven for our sins is the same as being saved from them: Confession and forgiveness is how we begin the life of becoming whole and free from the presence and power of our sins.

God doesn’t forgive because you repent; God forgives because he has already placed you in the sheepfold. Because welcoming and making you holy is what delights the Lord. God offers repentance to you as a gift, to free you from what hurts and binds and controls you.

We mustn’t think of righteousness as a thing, an item that God gives us; it is not so impersonal. Justification is our becoming, increasingly, a participant in the righteousness, holiness, and life of Christ (cf John 15).

About the judgment: We shouldn’t think of that as a possibly adversarial Judge pronouncing sentence on us, but as the open revelation of what we have become.

St John of San Francisco said:

“When ‘the books are opened’ (Revelation 20:12) it will become clear that the roots of all vices lie in the human soul. Here is a drunkard or a fornicator. When the body has died, some may think that sin is dead too. No! There was an inclination to sin in the soul, and that sin was sweet to the soul. And if the soul has not repented of the sin and has not become free of it, it will come to the dread Judgment also with the same desire for the sweetness of sin and will never satisfy its desire. In it there will be the suffering of hatred and malice. It will accuse everyone and everything in its tortured condition, it will hate everyone and everything. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth of powerless malice.”