Fr. Stephen over at “Glory to God for all things” has written a marvelous, succinct essay about how we might answer the question “are you saved.” I highly recommend it to you, as well as the thoughtful responses that it has generated.
My life in the South has been marked by the question, “Are you saved?” As a child, street preachers from the local fundamentalist protestant college would hold forth in front of the Dollar Store (which was also the bus stop), guaranteeing something of a captive audience. The question in that context had a simple meaning:
a. you are born with the sin and guilt of Adam
b. you are thus deserving of hell.
c. only by accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior can you be saved from those punishing flames.
d. Jesus is a God’s substitution who suffered the penalty which I deserved.
I know this sounds caricatured or may fail to do justice to the complete teaching of the Substitutionary Atonement, but it is as complete a version as was preached on the streets, or in the pulpits of my native South Carolina hometown.
By age 13 certain contradictions within this account of salvation became obvious to me. For one, the problem of extrinsic righteousness. I didn’t know that was the term for a righteousness that is understood solely in terms of my legal standing before God – but it was certainly what I had been taught. The problem with it is that it seemed to me to lack something.
One thing it lacked, was an actual change in me. Everyone I knew did not want to go to hell (who would), but I can’t honestly say that I knew many people who wanted to go to heaven for heaven’s sake. Heaven only seemed desireable as an alternative lifestyle. Indeed, the idea of praising God forever and ever sounded boring beyond belief.
Thus it was that at around age 13 I came to not believe in God, or, at least, not in the God I had been told about. It seemed too boring, too beside the point and even childish. I was interested in God (if there was one) but not in that one.
I could expand on this – and probably will at some time in the future. But I had arrived at a fairly precocious age where many people in our culture have reached: atheism as the rejection of a false gospel.
Today I have learned to say to atheists: “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in; I may not believe in that God either.”
I’ll pick up the autobiography another time – but I will leap ahead today to a question I sometimes hear from local Protestants when they are asking me about Orthodoxy (I am not infrequently the only Orthodox Christian some people have met around here). That question is: “Do you believe in salvation by grace?”
Now this is a better question than, “Are you saved.” And it is able to be answered more easily from an Orthodox perspective. The answer is simply, “We not only believe in salvation by grace, we think that grace is what salvation itself actually is.”
This is to say: We believe that grace is nothing other than the very Life of God. What is wrong with us as human beings (sinners) is that we have cut ourselves off from this Life of God. We have rejected Him, and rather than walking in the Light of His Life, we walk in darkness and do deeds of darkness, hurting one another and distorting yet further the image of God within us. Thus salvation is turning to God and “uniting ourselves to Him.” We believe this happens in our acceptance of Him as Lord and Savior, and is sealed within us in Holy Baptism, nourished by Holy Communion, and every action of our life together as the Body of Christ. Grace is not simply how we are saved, it is the very content of our salvation.
I could draw fine points and say that this salvation by, in, with and through the Grace of God also requires our cooperation, but still this means only that we must live in relationship with God as persons, that is in relationships of love and freedom. Any other kind of relationship would be a distortion of what God has for us in union with Him.