How are we saved according to Orthodoxy?

August 11, 2021

Have you ever heard people speak of what it takes to be saved? Have you ever wondered what is it that we are saved from as Christians and how God goes about saving us? If you have, then know that you are not alone. This is possibly one of the most important and most discussed topics in Christian history. Let’s go ahead and discuss the topic together.  


In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit; One God, Amen.  


As per Christians, how is it that humanity is saved? And what does salvation actually entail? This very subject of how salvation is effected in the life of the believer is one that has been heavily debated by many. Until today, in many Christian circles, much discussion has been had as to how we are saved by God. This subject matter is called Soteriology – specifically the theology dealing with salvation. Today, we hope to introduce the conversation by having a very high level discussion about how Orthodox Christianity approaches the subject. 


That being said, let us begin by making something very clear; while so much has been said about this subject, and many great theologians have both debated and discussed this subject at length, we as Orthodox Christians maintain that the economy – or the plan – of Salvation is and will remain a real mystery. Nothing we can do within our human limitations can allow us to unlock the depth of how God saves his people. Holy Scripture clearly shows us that many different models of salvation can be referenced to speak of God’s salvation for humanity. The New Testament writers speak of Christ as teacher, Christ as ransom, Christ as sacrifice, they speak of the Great Exchange model, of the Suffering Servant, as well as Christ the great Victor…all of these and many other models speak of Salvation within scripture. We as Orthodox Christians can not simply pick one model and ignore the rest because these models are not mutually exclusive. In other words, all these models point to the various aspects of the mystery without contradicting one another. We must consider them all, properly interpret each one of them, and also acknowledge that they each have something to say about the great mystery of salvation that has been graciously offered to us by God.  


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It is important for us to begin by identifying the problem we need saving from. All too often, when speaking of the fall of humanity we speak of sin strictly from a moral perspective – some sort of ethical failure on our part. And while there is indeed an element of sin which translates into an infraction of disobedience against God’s commandment, this does not in any way encompass the fullness of the consequence of sin.  


The book of Wisdom states that “for God created us for incorruption, 

and made us in the image of his own eternity, but through the devil’s envy death entered the world…” (Wisdom 2:23-24) Early Church fathers like St Athanasius explains that by choosing to alienate ourselves from God through sin, we were condemning ourselves to “abide in death and corruption.” Salvation therefore must bring about an existential change within us – from death to life – from corruption to incorruption, from separation from God to union with Him. Therefore, as Orthodox Christians we reject any doctrine of Salvation that would reduce the problem to simply the need to be forgiven for a moral infraction. Humanity needed an ontological change, and so God’s offering of salvation has to offer just that!   


Something else must be considered in the discussion of salvation; it is clear that we are the ones that have changed, not God. Scripture clearly teaches that there is no change in God; “For I am the Lord, I do not change” (Malachi 3:6) To suggest that sin has caused a change in God – at the level of his honor or his disposition towards us – is to go against the teachings of the faith. Our sinfulness has caused a great separation between us and the Lord – but it is humanity that needs to be reconciled to God, not God who needs reconciliation with us. St Paul says clearly that God’s intention was to reconcile us to himself. He says:  


“18 Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, 19 that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation.” (2 Corinthians 5: 19-20)  


This would also lead us to realize that because God’s intention for us is to be reconciled to Him, then this would mean that the All-Holy Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – all desire our reconciliation. This is God’s will for us – a state of union with Him. However, some doctrines of salvation propose notions that go against the two last points we have made. They suggest that God is the one who has changed – insofar that His divine honor has been offended by us and that He now requires satisfaction. Supposedly, God’s view towards us has changed! Furthermore, other doctrines propose that there seemingly exists a variety of wills between the persons of the Trinity, that somehow our sin has introduced conflict and even disconnection between the persons of the All-Holy Trinity. This sort of doctrine is simply unacceptable to us – we reject any doctrine that would introduce division between the Holy Trinity as this is simply not our faith.  


As a matter of fact, we believe that the All Holy Trinity has desired the repentance of humanity and our return to God from the very moment we have strayed away. This is why our Liturgical prayers and praises are often teaching us to say “For of His own will, and the pleasure of His Father, and the Holy Spirit, He came and saved us.”  This united will and love for humanity drives St john Chrysostom to also express that God’s desire to reconcile us was not the Son’s alone. He teaches:  


“When I say that Christ is the cause of our reconciliation, I say that the Father is also. When I say that the Father gave, I mean that the Son gave also.” [St John Chrysostom – Homilies on Corinthians 11.4] 


Therefore to introduce any possible source of division or tension between the Father and the Son does not stand in line with the Church’s teachings.  


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It is also important to note that in the Orthodox Christian faith, God’s saving work is not limited to any one particular event in the life of the Lord Jesus Christ. While we often speak of the Lord’s sacrifice on the cross, and his life-giving death, we ought not to speak as if the Lord’s divine economy of salvation is summed up strictly in the event of the cross. This is simply not what the early church believed.  


Take for instance the teachings of St Cyril of Alexandria. He teaches that the Lord desired to change us for the better by becoming fully human in His incarnation. From his birth up until his ascension, the Lord’s entire life was meant to save us. Listen to what St Cyril says:  


“The Son came, or rather was made man, in order to reconstitute our condition within himself; first of all in his own holy, wonderful, and truly amazing birth and life […] He wanted us to have this intellectual regeneration and spiritual assimilation to himself, who is the true and natural Son, so that we too might be able to call God our Father, and so remain free of corruption as no longer owning our first father, that is Adam, in whom we were corrupted.” [St Cyril of Alexandria – on the Unity of Christ]    


It is precisely this faith that leads to the realization of just how great a mystery salvation. It’s not only the cross, it’s the entire life and ministry of Our Lord Jesus Christ, which is why the Church in her Creed does not only mention cross, but also includes “..for us and for our salvation, he was incarnate, became man, was crucified, suffered, was buried, rose from the dead, ascended into the heavens, sits at the right hand of the father, and is coming again…” All of these and many more important events all lead to the salvation of the human being in Christ Jesus!  


All of this ultimately leads to the purpose of our salvation, which is life eternal with God – in, through, and with him. His desire for us has always been Union with Him – “…that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us…” (John 17:21)  


For this reason we believe that God became man – not just to die for us – but that every aspect of His becoming human may bring about salvation – which is union with him. The great mystery of salvation is that while we turned away from Him, while our sinful choices introduced sin and death and corruption, He becomes what we are to draw us back to himself. What we could not do on our own, He has done for us. He took what is ours, gave us what is His. And in His incarnation – his birth, life, ministry, baptism, transfiguration, betrayal, crucifixion, death, resurrection, ascension and in sending us the indwelling Holy Spirit – all of these lead to us knowing Him once again in order to be united to Him. For that is ultimately what salvation is!  




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