How on earth does a middle-American, charismatic, Evangelical, non-denominational church-going, ex-Mormon like me find himself drawn to Eastern Orthodoxy? Prior to a couple of years ago I had never so much as met an Orthodox Christian and I certainly could not have given a commentary on Eastern Orthodoxy, except to say that I saw “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”.
My first introduction was from reading a book entitled “Being as Communion,” by the Orthodox theologian, John Zizioulas. I was left in a state of shock nearly every time I finished reading (I made the mistake on a number of occasions of reading it at night, which would keep me up till 2 and 3 o’clock in the morning). The shock was the ‘coming to grips’ with how much of the Christian life I had missed out on after 20 years of following Christ. First and foremost I became aware that my concept of salvation was nearly all wrong.
For the non-denom, evangelical Christian, salvation is essentially reduced to a prayer and a hand raise. Once a person has performed the required acts—(1) repeat the “sinners prayer” after the minister, and (2) make a public confession by raising your hand and/or come to the front of the church (“alter call”)—the entire work of salvation is accomplished. Game over.
However, I can’t remember a time after my exodus from Mormonism and my wandering through the wilderness of ‘independent’ Christianity that this reductionist view of salvation didn’t upset me. It was always at the core of my endless polemic against the church. But my problem with the church was never birthed from malice; it was birthed from a deep love for the Body of Christ, a body that I wanted to see healed from its divisions and its flippant treatment of the sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ. One would think, from watching many TV preachers, that Christianity is little more than a cosmic ticket to a heavenly wonderland (redeemable at death), endless financial prosperity, and physical health—to hell with “working out my salvation with fear and trembling.” Salvation is a done deal; I said the prayer, I raised my hand, now pass the remote control.
The only conceivable way that Christians ever began believing in a salvation that was reducible to something as passive as a “sinner’s prayer” is by first believing that sin is also something passive; something that one is ‘born into’ and not something one is wholly responsible for.
I found that the concept of salvation being, more or less, a juridical event (sweet, loving Jesus defending the sinner against the angry and wrathful Father in a heavenly courtroom) that took place without any participation from the believer, was not an idea passed on by the Apostles or the early Church Fathers. The teaching that Christ’s sacrifice was an atonement which satisfied the legal requirements demanded by God for the payment of sin (a payment made in the form of the death and mutilation of His own Son) found its way into Christian theology primarily through the writings of Augustine (c.354-430). The idea that sin is passive is found in the belief that somehow all of humanity sinned when Adam sinned, and are therefore guilty of his sin without having personally committed the sin (original sin). Prior to Augustine, when the Church Fathers were asked what it is that humanity inherited from Adam, if not his sin-guilt, the Orthodox Fathers answered in unison: “Death” (I Cor 15:21). It is death that has been passed on, not the guilt of ‘original sin’. I realized that I am not guilty of Adam’s sin; I’m guilty of MY sin. That little revelation changed the whole picture of redemption for me.
I would be honored to discuss this in-depth with anyone who wants to get into the finer details of the Orthodox view. If I were to preempt such a discussion by attempting to cover every point, this article would become a novel. The overall point is that I realized what salvation is: a return to the original state in which humanity was created, that is, in perfect communion with God by becoming “partakers of the divine nature” (II Peter 1:4), not simply a legal contract giving me a ‘get-out-of-hell-free-card’. Through Christ I receive the grace that makes the transformation into His image possible. But this is not accomplished by divine fiat, as Calvinism (feeding off the works of Augustine and Anselm (c.1033-1109)) would preach. Humans must become “co-workers” with God (1 Cor 3:9). Hence Paul’s continual instructions to become like a spiritual athlete, or soldier, who disciplines his mind and body (1 Cor 9:24-27) in the working out of salvation “with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12).
But to truly understand the Orthodox view of salvation one must reach far beyond theological descriptions. Salvation is a life experienced within the Eucharistic community. I will need to continue this on the next article, but in short: the motivating principle which animates the Orthodox Christian faith is not to have, as with small children playing ‘tag’, some sort of cosmic ‘home-base’ where one attains immunity from poverty, sickness, and eternal damnation. Salvation is literally life with God lived out continually, without a day or even a moment surrendered to a life lived apart from His presence.