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Faith, Works, and the Original Christian Message of Salvation

“For God’s part, He will forgive any and all of those sins for which we wish to be forgiven; but when it comes to sins for which we do not wish to be forgiven, sins we cherish and cling to, communion cannot be restored if we refuse to humble ourselves and accept God’s forgiveness.”

What is salvation? We often must understand what something is not, in order to better understand what it is[1]. Since around the time of the Great Schism[2] at the dawn of the second millennium, an understanding of our salvation in Christ that was unknown to the Church of the first millennium has been proclaimed in the Christian West[3]. Where the original Orthodox Christian understanding of salvation is called “theosis,” this latter-day Western doctrine is known as “satisfactionism[4],” and it was satisfactionism that gave rise to the debate over faith and works at the time of the Protestant Reformation: is a person covered by Jesus’ work of salvation through “faith alone,” as St. Paul’s epistles seem to say, or are “good works” also required of us, as St. James’ epistle and Christ’s own teachings seem to say? In recent decades, then, as the Christian East has begun to emerge from its own Dark Age and has entered into dialogue with the Christian West[5], the faith vs. works debate has provided the Orthodox Church with an opportunity to clarify and more thoroughly define the original Christian doctrine of salvation, by further explaining what it is not; for this controversy in latter-day Western Christendom presupposes a false conception of the nature of our salvation in Christ.

It was the understanding of the Church of the first millennium (and it remains that of the Eastern Orthodox Church today) that in Christ we are saved from our sin itself, and not merely from punishment for that sin. Faith and good works do not earn us salvation, then: they aresalvation, they are its content. However much our lives are characterized by faith and good works — together with hope, love, prayer, fasting, almsgiving, chastity, humility, repentance, and all the rest of the spiritual virtues — rather than the sinful opposites of those things, our hearts are to that extent not corrupted by sin. Salvation is the process of spiritual growth (theosis) in which we are freed from the vices, progress in the virtues, and become more and more like Christ. The spiritual life[6], which has been lived so admirably in the religions and spiritual traditions of many cultures through human history, can be consummated and perfected in communion with Christ the incarnate God, the “expectation of the nations” of Whom Isaiah prophesied; for it is not possible to attain perfection through our efforts alone, but as Jesus taught, “with God, all things are possible.” God “creates man in His image and likeness,” but after the Fall into sin man was no longer like God, and thus incapable of communion with Him. And so, since we were no longer like Him, He became like us. Through His incarnation in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, God restored the lost likeness to man and made our communion with Him possible once again.

By His incarnation, God took on human nature in its entirety and perfected it; as a result, those who live in communion with Him likewise “become partakers of the divine nature,” as St. Peter put it, progressively perfecting their own humanity. What Christ is by nature, we become through the synergy of our spiritual efforts and His grace.

In response to this the satisfactionist often asks, “If salvation is a process of spiritual growth, then how far must I progress in that process to get to heaven?” But Christian spiritual growth is heaven itself, not merely a test we must pass to be allowed in. Furthermore, our salvation isn’t so much a matter of how far we progress in our spiritual growth before the end of this life; it’s a question of loving God before all else, such that when one succumbs to sin and suffers a setback in his spiritual life, he always repents and takes up the struggle once again. One who truly loves God will keep to the narrow path and will return to it after he falters, and by virtue of nurturing this love for God in his heart he will find that in eternity, when God reveals Himself to us in all His glory, the experience of His love will be joy and heaven rather than torment and hell. For God’s part, He will forgive any and all of those sins for which we wish to be forgiven; but when it comes to sins for which we do not wish to be forgiven, sins we cherish and cling to, communion cannot be restored if we refuse to humble ourselves and accept God’s forgiveness. God creates man to grow in communion with Him throughout eternity, to become ever more like Him and draw ever closer to Him. We do not become additional members of the Trinity, but nevertheless we participate in the Trinitarian communion. We commune with and partake of the same divine energies that allow the Persons of the Trinity to transcend their multiplicity and live together as one God — for these energies are as much a part of God as His essence, His mysterious nature as He himself knows it. Since the time of the Fall, the first phase of our spiritual growth has been to be healed of our sin, freed from the obstacles to our growth in the likeness of Christ; we call this “salvation.” But even after we are free from those obstacles, the process of theosis continues. After that which is spiritually negative has been reversed, the person living in communion with God goes on to progress and grow in what is spiritually positive: becoming by grace what Christ is by nature.


[1] Indeed, this fact explains how the Christian experience of communion with God has nurtured the development of Christian theology, in the early centuries as in recent times: as Christian thinkers have offered different ideas in their efforts to understand the faith, the Church has measured those ideas against its practical experience of God in the Communion of the Saints. When they have been found to be inconsistent with the Church’s empirical awareness of divine realities, the Church has developed precise theological language to counter them, and to explain how and why they lead the seeker away from God. Orthodox theology, then, has been achieved by prayer in the sanctuary, not by reading books in the library; and it has largely been as a result of God’s guidance of the Church in rebuttals of various heresies (the Church’s explanation of what the faith is not) that she has developed the subtle and precise theological expression of the faith that constitutes the Patristic heritage (the Church’s explanation of what the faith is).

[2] For an excellent, non-polemical Orthodox account of the schism between the Roman See and the four Eastern Sees, consult Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s The Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy.

[3] The faith vs. works controversy has its roots in Carolingian theology. Where most Westerners are familiar with the changes that came into Christianity with the Protestant Reformation, the changes that came with the rise of the Frankish kings and their alliance with the Pope of Rome tend to be deemphasized if not entirely overlooked in the typical History of Western Civilization course, and are absent from the Western cultural conception of history. These changes, though, were at least as extensive and far-reaching as those of the Reformation. In our Western Civilization courses we call the rise of the Frankish kings the “Carolingian Renaissance,” but from the perspective of the early Church it is better understood as a revolution, not a renaissance, and as the beginning of the theological schism with the Christian East.

To cite the analysis of the Carolingian Renaissance by Prokurat, Golitzin, and Peterson in The Historical Dictionary of the Orthodox Church, “In this shift the Western Church turned in on itself and, more importantly, away from Constantinople as the throne of the sole Christian emperor. […] The shift is marked at once by a political schism, the crowning of Charlemagne by Pope Leo III in 800 as ‘Roman Emperor,’ and by the efforts of the new emperor’s court theologians to isolate the ‘Greeks’ in support of their sovereign’s universal claims, by branding the Church of Constantinople and the Empire it served as heretical. They drew strength from the establishment and stimulation of new schools and a program in Latin, all of which took place in the context of the Church. The Carolingian theological program saw, among other things, the addition of the filioque to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, together with an insistence on the addition as a necessary article of the Christian faith. Particular stress was also laid on the papal office, an emphasis that was marked in turn by the creation of documents (such as the Donation of Constantine) purporting to be ancient testimonies to the pope’s role both as governor of the universal Church and as source of all Christian political legitimacy. In effect a kind of revolution, the Carolingian reform paved the way for modern Europe and, more proximate to its own time, for the Gregorian reforms of the 11th century, the ensuing final rupture between the East and West, and the great papal theocracy of the High Middle Ages.”

It was in the context of this Carolingian theological program that an entirely new, Western conception of salvation began to develop. This theory has come to be known as “satisfactionism,” and would find its first expression in the formal language of Latin theology in 1098, in Anselm of Canterbury’s essay Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man). Today, Catholics and Protestants are used to thinking of the Reformation debates over faith, works, and the papacy as the great historical divide in Christian theology; but for Eastern Orthodoxy, Catholicism and Protestantism are two sides of the same coin, for both are founded upon the doctrine of satisfactionism. The great theological schism of Christian history, then, is between the East with its doctrine of theosis, and the West with its satisfactionism.

[4] For further information read an Orthodox criticism of satisfactionism by Clark Carlton, reproduced here with his permission.

[5] Eastern Orthodox Christianity and Western Christianity diverged and became estranged early in the West’s medieval era, and by the time of the Renaissance and rise of the Western world (and corresponding decline of the Near Eastern world), the Orthodox Church had entered its own insular “dark age” by way of the Ottoman yoke and other political and cultural circumstances in the Middle East, Russia, and Eastern Europe. Thus it has been only in recent decades that the Church has begun, in a thorough and substantive way, to engage with and respond to a Western Christianity that has been developing apart from and independently of Orthodoxy for more than a millennium.

[6] Three excellent laypersons’ introductions to the Orthodox Christian spiritual life are Ascending the Heights: A Layperson’s Guide to the Ladder of Divine Ascent by Fr. John Mack, Orthodox Spirituality: A Brief Introduction by Metropolitan Heirotheos of Nafpaktos, and The Orthodox Way by Bishop Kallistos Ware. Also highly recommended is Christ the Eternal Tao by Fr. Damascene Christensen, a book that explains Orthodox Christianity from the perspective of East Asian spiritual disciplines and philosophies.

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