In recent weeks, I have visited with an old Church of Christ acquaintance from the bad old days. We always used to enjoy discussing the myriad problems in the church. And we were as full of "solutions" as we were full of ourselves. Anyway, we have not talked to any great extent in over 5 years, and I enjoyed reconnecting with him. He feigned ignorance of my now being Orthodox, though I suspected his inquiry into where I was worshipping to be, in truth, a lead-in to broach that very subject.
Though I am usually up for anything, his opening question took me back a little. "Now, the Orthodox Church....is that some of the old and some of the new?" Huh? I had absolutely no idea what he meant by that, but at least I knew how to answer--"it's none of the new!" The extent of American unconcern and ignorance about anything other still slays me sometimes. But I went on to briefly describe, as best I could, the nature of my faith. I am usually pretty abysmal at this. He said, "I just want to know one thing. Do you believe you are saved by grace?" [This was always his big item, which makes his sticking-with the Church of Christ all these years all the more incomprehensible.] I answered affirmatively, but noted that it was probably not in the same meaning he applied to the phrase.
My friend had read up a little bit by our next conversation. He was prepared to take me to task about "issues"--Mary's perpetual virginity, intercessory prayers, the condition of souls in Paradise, apostolic succession, our ascetical labors being "self-absorbed," etc. Much of what he said I now consider blasphemous, but was tempered in my response by the memory that this was exactly the type of conversation I used to delight in. I did not really engage him as he would have liked on these concerns. I knew the conversation was not going anywhere, and if it were to do so, it would not be this way.
He wanted me to read a book that had changed his life, and I agreed to do so. I have not read anything like this is years--So You Don't Want to go to Church Anymore? I actually felt guilty doing so, particularly during Great Lent, as the book was silly, ultimately sad and a near waste of time. I found the book to be full of angst and frustration and hand-wringing, as this particular author laid out his plan to fix the unfixable (house churches, the best I can tell.) My friend asked me what I thought of it, and I told him, hopefully without being too harsh or condescending.
At one point in our conversations, I suggested that if he read one online source to learn about Orthodoxy, to make it Fr. Stephen Freeman's Glory to God For All Things. I hope and pray he does so. Meanwhile, I decided to take my own advice. Fr. Stephen's posts are always excellent, but the last few weeks have been some of his best. Following are excerpts from two in particular that hit home with me.
There is no denying that grace is a free gift and that it is the true means of our salvation. But what if our problem is not to be primarily understood in legal terms? What if that which needs saving about us is not our guilt before the law of God, but the ravages worked within our heart and life from the presence of sin and death? This is probably the point where many discussions about salvation fall apart. If one person has in mind primarily a forensic salvation (I go to heaven, I don’t go to hell), while the other is thinking primarily in terms of an ontological change (I am corrupted and dying and were I to go to heaven I’d still be corrupted and dying). The debate comes down to a question of whether we need a change of status (forensic) or a change within our very heart.
Orthodox theology, has largely been nurtured in the understanding of salvation as a healing of our heart and a transformation of the whole of our life.
It is difficult for Christians of any sort in our modern world to grasp what it means to be saved by grace, if grace is indeed the very life of God given to us to transform and transfigure us – to change us into conformity with the image of Christ (Roman 8:29). The difficulty with this understanding is that, unlike a change in status, a transformation is slow work. We do not live in a culture that is particularly patient about anything.
The life of grace means that I have given myself to Christ and to the means He has provided for my salvation. I will confess my sins and embrace the life of repentance. I will approach the Cup of His Body and Blood with faith and with trust in His promise of Life. I will be patient as I await His coming to me – as forgiveness – as healing – as transformation from the death of Adam into the Life of Christ. All of which requires that we “show up” – not in the casual sense of the term – but in the sense that we truly struggle to make ourselves available to God.
And from the comboxes:
I cannot have absolute certainty of my eternal destiny. And why is absolute certainty impossible? Because I cannot guarantee my own faith in and love of God. In practical reality all I can do is cry out to God, “Love, have mercy,” in confidence that he is indeed merciful to all who ask for his mercy. And therein is my hope–not absolute certainty … but genuine hope.
Ontologically and transformationally, we usually have no clue what we are doing to ourselves by continuing in our sins. It is those deep and hidden wounds that Jesus heals so that we are able to even approach loving one another. I must also pray that my enemy also be healed of his deep and hidden wounds because it is the combination of my wounds and his that make us enemies.
The Nature of Things and our Salvation
1. It is the nature of things that man does not have a legal problem with God. That is to say, the nature of our problem is not forensic. The universe is not a law-court.
2. It is the nature of things that Christ did not come to make bad men good, but to make dead men live. This is to say that the nature of our problem is not moral but existential or ontological. We have a problem that is rooted in the very nature of our existence, not in our behavior. We behave badly because of a prior problem. Good behavior will not correct the problem.
3. It is the nature of things that human beings were created to live through communion with God. We were not created to live as self-sufficient individuals marked largely by our capacity for choice and decision. To restate this: we are creatures of communion, not creatures of consumption.
Much of my experience as an American Christian has been an encounter with people who do not see mankind’s problem as existential or ontological – but rather as moral. They have seen that we behave badly and thought that the primary task of the Church (following whatever event was considered “necessary” for salvation) was to help influence people to be “good.”
The nature of things is that people die - and not only do they die – but death, already at work in them from the moment of their birth, is the primary issue. The failure of humanity is not to be found or understood in a purely moral context.
The importance of these distinctions (moral versus existential) is in how we treat our present predicament. If the problem is primarily moral then it makes sense to live life in the hortatory mode, constantly urging others to be good, to “take the pledge,” or make good choices. If, on the other hand, our problem is rooted in the very nature of our existence then it is that existence that has to be addressed.
And so if we will live in such communion we will struggle to pray, not as a moral duty, but as the very means of our existence. We pray, we fast, we give alms, we confess, we commune, not in order to be better people, but because if we neglect these things we will die. And the death will be slow and marked by the increasing dissolution of who and what we are.