Friday, August 13, 2010

The Orthodox Christian Doctrine of Salvation

Since the Protestant Rebellion, there has been a heated debate within Christendom over the doctrine of salvation. For two thousand years, the Orthodox Catholic Church taught that salvation is a lifelong process, initiated through the blood of Christ in Holy Baptism, nurtured through faith and good works, and consummated at the Last Judgment. Protestants, on the other hand, believe that salvation is a one time event, based on the imputed righteousness of Christ that is received solely through faith. In favor of the Protestant position, Protestants cite passages of Holy Scripture such as Romans 3:28, which teaches that we are justified by “faith apart from works of the law.” Orthodox Christians cite passages like James 2:24, which says that we are “justified by works and not by faith alone.” In order to resolve this apparent contradiction, we must examine the whole of the New Testament. We must begin with the death of Christ, for that is the very ground of salvation.

Even here, there is a large dispute. Orthodox Christians believe that Jesus Christ died not to satisfy the wrath of a furious Father, but to loose the bonds of death and make union with Christ possible. Furthermore, this is accomplished not only through the Cross, but through the whole of the incarnation. St. Athanasius said that God became man so that man may become [like] God. This doctrine, called theosis, is taught in several passages of the Bible. For example, St. Peter teaches in 2 Peter 1:4 that we are to be “partakers of the divine nature.” St. Paul teaches in Romans 8:29 that we are to be “conformed to the image of His Son”. The Cross is the culmination of Christ’s saving work. St. Peter explains the purpose of the Cross in Acts 2:24, saying, “God raised [Jesus] up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.” The purpose of the Cross is the destruction of death. Death could never hold the author of life, who is God. As St. Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 15:21, “For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead.”

By participating in the life giving death and resurrection of Christ, our sins are forgiven. In support of the position that Christ died to satisfy the wrath of a vengeful Father, Protestants often cite Romans 3:25, where Paul says , “God put forward [Jesus] as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.” The key word is “propitiation”, which would mean that Christ propitiated the wrath of the Father at Calvary. However, the most recent scholarship has demonstrated that this is in fact not the proper translation. (Finlan 39) The proper translation of the word “hilasterion” is rather, mercy seat. God puts forward Jesus Christ as a mercy seat. Thus, to receive forgiveness, one participates in this mercy seat. This is precisely what the Orthodox Church teaches.

As we can see, the main function of the Cross is union with Christ. This union is theosis, which is salvation. The first act that unites an individual with Christ Jesus is Holy Baptism. Baptism is not simply a symbol, but rather is the washing of regeneration, as St. Paul says in Titus 3:5. The new birth of the Christian life is baptism. Jesus Christ says in John 3:5 that one cannot enter the kingdom of God unless one is born of “water and the Spirit.” The church fathers understood the water here to be the waters of Holy Baptism, through which the Holy Ghost works. It truly does wash away all sins prior to baptism. In Acts 22:16, St. Paul tells people to “rise, be baptized and wash away your sins”. St. Peter tells everyone in Acts 2:38 to be “baptized for the remission of your sins.” Baptism washes away sins because baptism unites one to Christ. St. Paul says in Colossians 2:12 that we have been “buried with [Christ] in baptism.” He reiterates this thought in Romans 6:4, where he states that, “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” He states in Galatians 3:27 that “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” St. Peter seals the point by pointing out in 1 Peter 3:21 that “baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you.”

In addition to baptism, which unites Christians with Christ, the sacrament of Holy Chrismation seals them with the gift of the Holy Ghost. St. Luke tells us in Acts of the Apostles that for the initial mysteries to be complete, one must not only be baptized, but also chrismated. He records in Acts 8:14-17 that, “when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, for he had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit.” St. Paul also mentions the formula of baptism and chrismation when he writes in Titus 3:5, “he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” The washing of regeneration, obviously, is baptism. In accord with the events in Acts 8, chrismation is the renewal of the Holy Spirit.

As we see, the initial union with Christ is in Holy Baptism. However, theosis is a lifelong process. As St. Paul writes in Philippians 2:12, we are to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” The key sacrament which brings us closer into union with Christ is the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. The Eucharist is the central sacrament of Christian unity. In order to understand this, it is important to understand the Church as the body of Christ. This is mentioned in the Lord Jesus’ revelation to St. Paul. Paul had been persecuting the Church. Jesus then asks Him in Acts 9:4, “Why are you persecuting me?” This makes perfect sense when it is understood that Christ’s Church is the body of Christ. St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:27, “you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” How is the Church made into the body of Christ? St. Paul answers this question in 1 Corinthians 10:16-17. He says, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” Paul thus teaches that the Church is made into the body of Christ by the partaking of the true body of Christ. In order for one to be truly united with Christ through the Holy Eucharist, it must be the true flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. This is why Jesus says in John 6:55 that “my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.” This is why He declared at the Last Supper that the bread was His body and that the wine was His blood.

As we have seen, one is united to Christ initially at baptism, sealed with the Holy Ghost at chrismation, and grows closer to Christ through the receipt of His body and blood. The question remains, however, how is one absolved of sins committed after baptism? One cannot be rebaptized, for baptism happens only once. The solution was given to us by Christ Jesus. For serious sins, the sacrament of confession is necessary. In John 20:23, Jesus says to His apostles, “If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld.” Thus, the apostles had the authority to absolve sins. Obviously, today, the apostles are dead. Thus, for their apostolic authority to remain with us, they must have left us with successors. It is apparent that they did. In Acts 1:20, they ordain a successor in place of Judas, saying “Let another take his bishopric.” We understand from the Fathers of the Church that this line of succession continued perpetually in the bishops of the Church. St. Irenaeus of Lyons, for example, enumerates all of Peter’s successors in the bishops of Rome up to Irenaeus’ own day. The bishops then delegate presbyters to shepherd local parishes. The presbyters, known as priests, also have this authority to absolve sins, by virtue of their delegation by the bishop.

In light of these biblical doctrines, what can we say on the controversial subject of faith and works? It is quite evident that works play a key role in our salvation. For example, St. James says in James 2:24 that we are “justified by works and not by faith alone.” St. Paul says in Philippians 2:12 to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” He also says in Romans 2:6 that God will render to each one “according to his works.” At the same time, Paul says in Ephesians 2:8-9 that we are “saved by grace through faith, not of yourselves, not of works, lest any man should boast.” How are we to reconcile these two apparently contradictory views in Scripture?

We must first understand that grace, and grace alone, is the foundation of our justification. No man can come to God unless God first draws Him. However, God draws all men to Himself, for Jesus says in John 12:32, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” Works can play no part in “persuading” God to save us. The first move is made by God, and no work intrudes on the basis of justification. This is why St. Paul says in Romans 11:6, “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.”

In light of this, we can now examine Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 2. When Paul says that we are saved by grace through faith, this is absolutely true. It is grace alone which saves us. When St. Paul says faith here, he is not actually referring to our faith in God. Rather, he is referring to God’s trustworthiness in fulfilling the covenant. He next declares that it is not our works which save us. It is important to understand that he is contrasting works with grace. St. Paul reiterates what he taught in Romans 11, namely, that no work can form the basis for justification. A work apart from grace is a dead work. In the very next verse, however, St. Paul states that “we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Paul is contrasting dead works, that is, works apart from grace, with living works, that is, works done by grace. This is made clear when he tells us in Romans 8:13 that “if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” Works that contribute to justification are works done by the Spirit, that is, by the grace of the Holy Trinity.

In light of this, Paul’s teaching that we are justified apart from works of the law becomes perfectly understandable. We cannot work within the system of law. We can never obligate God to repay us with glorification. Rather, we must work within a system of grace, understanding that all good works we do are done by the grace of God. We must “work out our salvation with fear and trembling.” However, as Paul says in the next verse, we may do this because, “ it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

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