Orthodoxy's Different Take on Salvation

All traditional Christian communions teach that salvation is being in a relationship with the personal God through Jesus, and that salvation is made possible by faith through God's grace. But there are varied interpretations on the teaching of the Apostle Paul that God has highly exalted Jesus and “given him a name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Wherefore … work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:9–12).

Why does Paul, the champion of salvation by grace (the gift of God), and whose writings are often used to counter any suggestion of “working” to earn or get grace, exhort his readers in Philippi to “work out your own salvation”? Some might propose that he means this only in the sense of “live out your lives as saved people,” but the counter to that idea is that Paul does not waste words or embellish, and is always careful to teach the straight truth, mindful of the dangers of being ambiguous. When he says “work out your own salvation” he means it all.

Keep the Faith

The Orthodox take is that he is referring to the fact that, being under house arrest in Rome, he might not be visiting the Philippians again. They might have found it relatively easy to keep on keeping on when an actual apostle was among them, but the Orthodox feel he is saying, “You're on your own. I'm not around to pick you up and brush you off when you fall. Take care of the gift you've received without my help. You've been saved by faith; now save yourselves by not failing to guard it.” In other words, though Jesus is the only savior in the sense of having eternal life that no one else has or can give, Paul might save some just by being around to protect them, to pick up on their lapses in enthusiasm, their starting to backslide. But they can also save themselves in his absence if they will heed his words. They have to work at it. Again, when writing to Timothy, his young bishop over the flock in Ephesus, he tells him to “Study to show yourself approved to God, a workman who need not be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). Even bishops have to work at it.

discussion question

What does the “work” consist of?

The context provided answers the question. “Every knee — the knee of every thing in heaven, and of every thing in earth, and of every thing under the earth” should be subjected to the Lord Jesus. Conversation, thoughts, vocations, avocations, friends, lifestyle, use of money, use of leisure time … every thing must be made worthy of God's approval.

Being saved is not just a bath in the baptistery; it's constantly working on not getting dirty again. The Orthodox emphasis on this idea, which is not as readily found in the western churches, is what was cited in Chapter 12 as divinization or theosis, which means saving more and more of the person until all of the person is in Christ and therefore is maximally partaking of the divine nature.

Salvation Past, Present, and Future

So for the Orthodox, salvation is past (been there), present (doing it), and future (going farther). Some part of the person has already been changed by grace and sealed in baptism, some is still being remodeled by faith, and some will be revealed as still needing work as grace abounds or becomes more visible in the saved person's life.

A second difference in the understanding of salvation is the purpose of the atonement. Though the Orthodox do not take issue with the traditional biblical references used by western theologians in support of their doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement derived from Augustine of Hippo (such passages as Isaiah 53:6–10; Romans 1:18; 3:22–5; 5:8–9; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Galatians 3:13; Hebrews 9:11–28; 1 Peter 3:18; and 1 John 4:10), Orthodox fathers have never emphasized the penal aspect, which sometimes gets presented as God the Father angrily punishing his Son on the cross to get vengeance for human sin (some have even called it “divine parental child abuse”). God's love and Jesus' love, not the vengeful wrath of any person of the Trinity, sent Jesus to the cross for humanity's sins, in the Orthodox emphasis.

Salvation from Death

A third difference in the understanding of salvation between western and eastern Christendom, linked to the second difference, is the emphasis on what salvation is from. In western teaching it is often expressed as salvation from sin, but Orthodox teachers more generally emphasize the salvation from the effect (or wages) of sin, which is death. Salvation is centered more in the resurrection, and victory over death, than on the atonement of Jesus wrought on the Cross, which was the means to the victorious end. This is not to say Orthodoxy minimizes the work of Jesus on the cross or the atoning sacrifice of Jesus as Lamb of God (language that is part of every Eucharistic offering in the Orthodox church), but that the main emphasis is the paschal (Easter) morning rather than the Good Friday afternoon.

Orthodoxy does not charge St. Augustine of heresy in his different emphases; he is regarded a saint of the preschism church by Orthodoxy as well as by Catholicism. Orthodox opinion does think Augustine's atonement emphasis has been exaggerated in the works of Luther and Calvin and in some attempts to popularize these views, and considers these other perceptions a somewhat inferior understanding of the core meaning of salvation.

  1. Home
  2. Jesus
  3. Meanwhile, in the East
  4. Orthodoxy's Different Take on Salvation
Visit other About.com sites: