For the Orthodox Christian, the Church is essential for salvation; and of all Orthodox doctrines this is perhaps the most reprehensible from the Evangelical’s point of view, and in particular those of the effortless-Christianity persuasion. The difference lies in how salvation is understood between the two theological camps. For the Orthodox salvation is union with the Triune God – known as “theosis,” or “deification,” i.e. partaking of the divine nature (2Pet 1:4). For the average Evangelical salvation is legal justification made effective by “faith alone” in the finished work of Jesus Christ. The manner in which these two visions play out has an immense effect on one’s understanding of the Church.
If salvation is essentially a onetime event of legal justification, based on one’s rational and heartfelt confession of Jesus Christ as Lord, then church is relegated to the position of something like an ‘outpost’ where people gather to receive further instruction in the faith, and for would-be believers to find a similar salvation. However, if salvation is “union” with Christ then the Church functions as Christ’s Body in the world; the Vine in which believers are grafted into. Church becomes something akin to a hospital where sick souls receive healing in an ever growing dynamic of union between the whole person – spirit, mind, body, etc – and the Holy Trinity.
In short, the Orthodox view salvation can be understood as a journey which begins at the moment of baptism and continues throughout one’s entire existence. It is a “life,” not merely an event, which encapsulates the entire being of the believer and brings his/her whole self into union with God. Thus, salvation is not something that begins in the “sweet by and by,” when the believer is finally released from the prison of material existence and escapes to the spiritual kingdom of heaven (a rather Platonic idea). Instead, salvation is NOW. Salvation is concerned with the present, with restoring mankind to their rightful place as “priests” over creation; as “Eucharistic beings.”
The Orthodox, in distinction to effortless-Christianity, do not confer the same value on one’s intellectual achievement of “believing” the doctrines of Christianity. Please don’t misunderstand. One’s believing is critical but it must transcend mere rational agreement with doctrines and become a living faith capable of true union with God. If faith is a movement that occurs strictly between one’s ears then it differs in no way from imagination. We are not saved by our imagination. The transcendence is achieved through the “means” of grace which Christ Himself gave the Church – the sacraments: baptism, confession, communion, etc. For the sake of brevity we will look at only two sacraments, that of baptism and communion, in order to see how the sacraments achieve this transcendence.
The Mystery of Baptism
Baptism is a divine “mystery” in that it confers a new birth on the believer; a birth which is known to faith and not to intellectual wrangling. This is clear in the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus in the Gospel of John chapter 3. Jesus tells Nicodemus that “unless a man be born from above, he cannot see the Kingdom of Heaven.” The perplexed Nicodemus then asks, “How can a man be born when he is old?” Jesus replies, “Unless a man be born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God.”
The common Evangelical understanding of this verse excludes the idea of “being born of water” as literal water baptism. The importance of this passage concerns being “born again,” which is achieved by believing in Christ and not by immersion in physical water.
However, the New Testament repeatedly denies such a reading. Jesus commands His disciples to teach all nations and to “baptize them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:19-20). Mark gives a similar account with a minor addition, “He that believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mk 16:16). When the Apostle Peter is asked by the crowd at Pentecost what they must do to be saved, he replies, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins…” (Acts 2:37-38). Baptism is called the “washing of regeneration” by St. Paul in Titus 3:5. It is through holy baptism that one is “buried with Christ” and is raised with Him into new life (Rom 6:4). Baptism transcends mere intellectual belief into living faith. It is through participation in the mystery of baptism, which transcends mere intellectual knowledge and involves the whole person, that grace is ‘activated’ unto salvation.
The Mystery of the Eucharist
As described by Michael Pomazansky, author of the renowned Orthodox Dogmatic Theology text, “The Eucharist is the Mystery in which the bread and wine of offering are changed by the Holy Spirit into the true Body and true Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, and then the believers receive communion of them for a most intimate union with Christ and eternal life.”
For 20 centuries the Orthodox Church has held that the Eucharistic elements of bread and wine become the very Body and Blood of Christ; but how this is accomplished is a mystery. In the same way that the incarnation of Christ remains a mystery for our human intelligence, such is the nature of the Eucharist. Hence the Orthodox Church has never attempted to explain the Eucharist in scientific terms but simply receives its truth by faith.
But why is it important that the Eucharist elements become Christ’s very body and blood? Why are they not used as simple memory devises? This is a question that plagues any honest student of Church history. One simply cannot avoid the importance placed on the Eucharist throughout the Church’s existence. The answers are manifold, but allow me to offer two points that I believe are critical:
1. Again and again the New Testament testifies to the Eucharist as the true body and blood of Christ. Jesus refers to His body and blood as food and drink of eternal life (John 6:51, 53-56; Matt 26:26-28; Luke 22:19-20); the early Church was found partaking of the Eucharist in its earliest formation (Act 2:42); St. Paul leaves no room for misunderstanding the literal meaning of the Eucharist as Christ’s body and blood (1Cor 10:16-17; 11:26-30). Throughout the writings of the early Church Fathers one finds no divergence of thought and practice. St. Ignatius, appointed as bishop of Antioch in 67 AD, at a time when 10 of the original disciples were still alive, wrote that one could easily find the Gnostic believers within the church by observing how they treated the Eucharist: “They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father raised up again.” This understanding of the Eucharist was maintained in the Church until the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century (and particularly through the influence of Zwingli, whose theology is prominent in the effortless-Christianity movement).
2. As to why the proper practice of the Eucharist is relevant to one’s salvation, St. Nicholas Cabasilas gave one of the most artful explanations: “While natural food is changed into him who feeds on it, and fish and bread and any other kind of food becomes human blood, here (in Holy Communion) it is entirely opposite. The Bread of Life Himself changes him who feeds on Him and transforms and assimilates him into Himself.” The Eucharist is the partaking of Christ’s saving flesh and blood in an act of mystical union with His Body.
The Evangelical pre-commitment to salvation by “faith alone” exclude baptism and the Eucharist from existing as anything more than memory devises, possessed with only symbolic importance. But even a cursory study of Church history and Scripture reveal this to be a major divergence from historical, Orthodox Christianity.
In summary, the Church is necessary for one’s salvation when salvation is understood in the historical Christian light of theosis. Salvation is not an individual affair in which one’s own rational powers of decision are the only tools in which one appropriates faith. Instead, salvation is being grafted into the Body of Christ by the means of grace – the sacraments – given to the Church by Christ Himself. The sacraments are a perfect picture of how faith and grace work: God offers mankind salvation; mankind either accepts or rejects the offering; if accepted, the individual presents him or herself as a living sacrifice to God; then through the sacraments God performs the work of unifying the believer with Himself and His Body – the Church. If salvation was strictly a matter of making an educated rational decision for Christ then one must wonder whether or not the mentally handicap can be saved; or children for that matter. Unless salvation is related to one’s whole being, and not only one’s intellect, then the whole person is not saved. Jesus became a whole man so that He might save us completely – soul and body.
Thanks for reading!