The Orthodox Teaching of Personal Salvation (Part IV)

Saint John of Kronstadt

Beloved brothers and sisters in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,

by Deacon Victor E. Klimenko, Ph.D. in Pastoral Theology


Faith is a starting point of one's personal salvation.

It is important to note that there are two parallel narratives both in Holy Scripture, and in the Patristic works: one gives an impression of salvation through "saving faith", and the other preaches the importance of works in addition to faith. In every case one has to be careful and should try to understand what each writer was talking about and whom he was addressing.

In the early Church, "faith" meant the entire lifestyle of a believer--as opposed to remaining a pagan or a Jew. Good deeds were taken as an integral part of such "faith". On the other hand, when talking specifically about "faith" and "works", an Apostle or a Holy Father most often desired to stress that "cold faith"--that is, being a Christian in name only, for social, familial or other reasons--could not save one: one actually has to "work out his salvation with fear and trembling" (Philippians 2:12). Thus both narratives--"faith" and "faith and works"--are consistent with each other.

In addition to a subjective spiritual experience, "faith" is understood by the Church also as "a doctrine to be followed, that is, the entire content of Christ's instruction to the Apostles (Matthew 28:20), "the faith once delivered to the saints" (Jude 3): the teachings of the Church. To believe in Christ as Savior and God is to also believe all that He taught. In other words, the Orthodox say that faith is not merely "that we believe" but "what we believe".

Simply confessing Christ as Lord does not earn you salvation. "Not everyone that saith unto Me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the Kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of My Father which is in Heaven" (Matthew 7:1). Demons are not saved, even though they have faith too: "...The devils also believe, and tremble" (James 2:19)--and even confess Christ: "A certain damsel possessed with a spirit of divination met us, which brought her masters much gain by soothsaying: The same followed Paul and us, and cried out, saying, These men are the servants of the most high God, which shew unto us the way of salvation" (Acts 16:16-17).

Repentance is a necessary condition of one's personal salvation.

Thus faith is only the beginning. "Faith only reveals to one the truth that for his prior sins God will not punish him, that, on the opposite, He is ready to accept him and pardon him and recognize him as His son. But this...only clears for one the path to God but does not do anything with him. Before that he was afraid to turn to God, but now he got to know God and stopped fearing Him, and, on the opposite, grew to love Him. But he is still the same man. It is necessary for him not to just to begin loving God but actively, really turn to Him."

In order to believe truly, it is necessary for one to understand the magnitude of his sin forgiven by God, to realize that he is a sinner worthy of death. One can only have true love for God when he realizes the true horror of his sins that God forgave him for free. This state--repentance--can even be called "the beginning of faith." Without judging himself, one will not ask God for forgiveness--and without asking for forgiveness, one will not receive it and thus will not be saved. One's return to God starts with repentance. Seeing it, God, like the father in the parable of prodigal son, runs to meet us: "when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him" (Luke 15:20).

Faith accompanied by repentance--"the faith of the Wise Thief"--is thus the true faith that saves. Christ expects repentance from His followers: "I am not come to call the righteous, but sinner to repentance" (Matthew 9:13). And He makes it clear that the possibility of one's salvation is tied to his repentance: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the Gospel" (Mark 1:15). "Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works: or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent" (Revelation 2:5). Furthermore, resistance to the Truth once it is known to one--that is, the lack of repentance--is something with which salvation becomes impossible: "All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit shall not be forgiven unto men" (Matthew 12:31).

True repentance--the ability to see the depth of one's sins--is the foundation of the entire "building" of Christian life, which is humility ("Blessed are the poor in spirit..."), the realization that one cannot rid himself of his sins without Christ. The Holy Fathers agree on the primacy of humility in one's spiritual life. We can note here that Adam had all gifts of God but he did not have experience of humility.

Personal salvation is acquired through fulfilling Christ's Commandments.

What plan should one follow in his continuing spiritual struggle after baptism? The Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-11) lay out this process in general. There is also a branch of Patristic teaching--called ascetics--and an abundance of texts that offer a more detailed plan. The ascetic Fathers have identified eight main sinful dispositions of soul--called passions--and the stages through which they take possession of one' soul. Based on their personal experience, these Holy Fathers also developed comprehensive methods of combating each passion and planting in one's soul a virtue opposite to it.

While the overview of the ascetic teaching goes beyond the scope of the present work, we will only stress that the early Apostolic and Patristic Church never looked at one's struggle to fulfill Christ's Commandments--works, in traditional terminology--as the means to earn salvation. In fact, the Church has always taught that we cannot fulfill any Commandment perfectly. Saints would weep over their virtues for this reason. But then why is trying to keep the Commandments important? Because it opens for one the real picture of himself--the state of that "original damage" that we inherited from Adam. As Saint Peter of Damascus said, "the first sign of the beginning of the health of the soul is seeing your sins innumerable as sea sand."

In other words, in Orthodoxy our good works are looked at as means of getting to know ourselves. Forcing oneself to diligently keep Christ's Commandments leads one to humility. And this is where salvation begins. This is when one realizes that he needs Christ--as one would realize that he is sick and needs a physician. According to the Holy Fathers, before you realize who you really are you cannot even be called a Christian.

Seeing how afflicted you are is what puts you before Christ. This is why our works matter! They are not "merits", they do not earn us anything--but they are the means of learning the truth about ourselves that leads us to True faith in Christ.

In general, God is seeking in us the ability to accept communion with Him--and readily gives it to us in proportion with our ability to accept. This ability is what matters. This is why even those who did not have a chance to be baptized (e.g., Christian martyrs, or the Wise Thief) can still get into the Kingdom of Heaven. It is the zeal towards good that makes us the members of the Kingdom of Heaven and gives us the ability to accept holiness. It is the disposition of one's soul that counts: the desire of the Kingdom of Christ. If one is "poor in Spirit" and truly longs for God, salvation will be his, even if he has not done enough good deeds". "It is not those who work that are saved but those who spiritually are always with God, who live for God."

It is through keeping the Commandments that the virtues are planted in our souls. Our life on Earth can thus be viewed as the time we have for the "upbringing" of our soul and creating in it the disposition that allows us communion with God. Christ does not need the actions that we perform when we keep His Commandments, He does not need our suffering--what He needs is the internal state of our soul that manifests itself when we, for example, turn the other cheek to our offender. "My son, give me thine heart" (Proverbs 23:26).

Understood this way, the importance of works for one's salvation find abundant support in the Holy Scripture.

Christ Himself said: "If a many love Me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him" (John 14:23). The necessity of works is further illustrated in the following passage: to the man who asked "What shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?, Jesus says what he needs to do--and this is not just to have faith or be baptized: "Go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow Me" (Mark 10:17-21).

God does not force salvation on anyone but assists those who choose it.

As was already mentioned, the Orthodox teaching on salvation is based on the doctrine of fee will. In his fall man did not lose his free will. Man could still choose to be with God or without Him--he just could not move by himself back towards God, as the path was closed by the "original sin."

Christ cleared the path, and now our salvation is the matter solely of our choice. God honors our choice--whatever it is. This is the reason God does not make demons disappear: God respects their free will, as free will is a feature of divinity (that, unfortunately, can be misused.) We are saved through cooperation of our will with God's--called synergy in Orthodox theology--the doctrine famously expressed by Saint Athanasius the Great as "God does not save us without us." Christ Himself promised His response to those seeking His help: "Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that seeketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened." (Matthew 7:7-8).

On the other hand, God does not force salvation on anyone: otherwise, this would not be "salvation" but rather His re-making us into something that contradicts His Own original design of us. First He made us in His image and now He "saves" us by taking His image away from us and essentially equating us with all other living creatures? When Saint John Chrysostom was asked why not everybody is saved, he said, "Because you yourselves do not want to [be saved]. Even though the grace is indeed the grace, and it saves, but it saves only those who desire, but not those who do not want it and turn away from it." Likewise, the Dread Judgment is dread not because someone will be put in hell against his will--but because that will be the final self-determination of each human.

"The grace of God does not enslave the conscience and freedom of man--but, having revealed to him the love of God and the horror of sin, it leaves it up to man to strive towards this love and …communion with it."

Christ's life on Earth is an example of personal salvation for us to follow.

"We know that Jesus Christ did not bring to us just a teaching, and that the job of the Apostles and the Church was not only to listen to the discourses of Jesus Christ and then pass them in their literal precision from generation to generation: for this purpose the best means is not an oral Tradition but some stone tablets. We know that Jesus Christ brought to us first and foremost a new life and taught it to the Apostles, and that the task of the Church Tradition is not just to convey the teaching, but to pass from generation to generation this very life conceived with Christ, to pass that which one cannot be passed by any word, any writing, but only through direct personal interaction."

Christ said: "I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me" (John 14:6). And in His Own Person Christ showed us salvation--that is, "what the true "likeness to God" is..."

With sincere agape in His Holy Diakonia,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George