As the last five years have passed, Debbie and I concluded that our family needed something more than our home church. While we love our home group and have no desire to end the friendships, fellowship and discussions, we needed some sort of time-tested faith-community that would train us to into the incarnational life we observe in the Bible. However, I simply don’t have the time, energy or intelligence to create something new only to discover in several years, especially at the cost of our children’s spirituality, that it didn’t work.
So while we currently remain committed to our home church, we knew we also needed to seek another Christian tradition for our family’s life and growth in Christ. The spectrum of choices seemed simple — Protestantism, Emerging Church, Anglicanism, Roman Catholicism, or Eastern Orthodoxy. However, the only viable option for us was Eastern Orthodoxy. Why?
In a nutshell, the primary attraction I had to Eastern Orthodoxy was its soteriology. For most of my Christian life as a western Evangelical, I lived and operated under the judicial view of salvation that is common to western Christianity. In addition, I had fully embraced the reduced popular version that one hears in many witnessing opportunities. It goes something like this:
“God loves you and has created you for a wonderful purpose. However, humanity rebelled against God and therefore all people are born and live under the guilt of sin, compounded by their own disobedience. We are all guilty of breaking God’s Law and because the wages of sin is death, every human being is condemned to die. But because God loves you so much, he sent his son to die on your behalf. On the cross, Jesus took upon himself the wrath and judgment reserved for you. So if you accept Jesus’ gift simply by believing it in faith, you are forgiven of your of guilt and God now views you with Jesus’ righteousness.”
Or to reduce it further into how most western evangelicals think, salvation means we’re forgiven of all of our sins and as a result, we will go to heaven when we die. This viewpoint focuses primarily on the individual and treats salvation as an event and a commodity regardless of the actual state of one’s life.
After my episode of severe burnout several years ago and during my subsequent theological reconstruction, I abandoned the judicial metaphor as the primary understanding of sin and salvation. I realized that while God was lavish with his love and forgiveness, I really hadn’t been saved from much of anything. As a successful pastor who loved Jesus, I was virtually as broken and screwed up as a human being as I was when I first began following Christ. It was this very fact that forced me to realize that the biblical view of salvation was more organic, relational, and synergistic than legal.
Salvation is the process of restoration to what humans were created to be. Rather than sin being the breaking of God’s Law, the root of sin is the movement from being to non-being. Sin is the distortion of our humanity, of who we are supposed to be as God’s image on earth. This is the glory of which we all fall short. Rather than being truly human, sin makes us subhuman. So the problem of sin is much deadlier and sinister than mere guilt or disobedience. It is the warping, distortion and brokenness of who we are as human beings. It is the full corruption of my mind, heart, body, soul and relationships. In this light, I don’t just need to be forgiven. I need to be healed. I don’t just need assurance of admittance into heaven in the future. I need assurance that who I am in the present is being transformed out of my desperate and destructive subhuman existence and into the image and likeness of God as I was divinely intended to live.
So salvation isn’t primarily about guilt and forgiveness. It’s about brokenness and healing. It’s about delusion and illumination. It’s about distortion and transformation. It’s about death and life in the here-and-now. As a follower of Jesus, I truly cannot say, “I am saved.” I can only say, “I am being saved.”
Christ’s crucifixion has conquered evil, destroyed death, reconciled creation, redeemed the human nature, and released God’s forgiveness. In other words, Jesus has made God’s salvation completely available to all people. But as St Paul exhorts the Philippians, “work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Salvation is something that is worked out progressively with God.
So if salvation is a lifelong journey of healing transformation in God, then how am I actually being saved? I am being saved by participating in the life of God by communing with Jesus Christ within the life of his people. So not only is salvation an ongoing relationship with God by communing with and following Christ, but salvation is also an ongoing relationship with God’s people. There is no such thing as a private salvation. One can only experience “being saved” within a community of Christ’s followers.
It is very easy to read this and wonder, “Isn’t this works-righteousness?” or “Aren’t you now trying to earn salvation?” And the simple answer is “Not at all.” None of this is possible without God’s grace completely penetrating and affecting all of this. But while salvation is opposed to earning, it requires strenuous effort in synergy with God’s grace. Salvation must be worked out in cooperation with God. It is like going to physical therapy to recover from an accident or surgery. Healing requires effort on my part, not as an attempt to earn anything, but as the cooperative process with my doctors that moves me from my brokenness to my healing.
Or to switch metaphors, the process of salvation is like marriage. I am legally married. But that thought rarely enters my mind. Rather, the last 19 years of marriage have been learning to live in a cooperative relationship with Debbie so that she and I progressively become one. Again, it’s not about earning anything. It’s a relationship of becoming something other than what I was when I began, knowing that what I am becoming is far better than what I was.
What are we becoming? Our salvation is that we’re becoming God’s humanity as he intended. We’re not only being restored into the image of God but growing into the likeness of God. We are growing into the fullness and likeness of Jesus, who was true humanity as we were all intended to become. So we are becoming by grace what Christ is by nature — the very fullness of God in our humanity. And as we become this, the entire Creation is being sanctified. In other words, we are becoming the agents of God’s sanctification and renewal of creation. And this then moves the discussion to mission (but that will have to wait for another post).
So all of this discourse on salvation is simply to say that Eastern Orthodoxy is the only Christian tradition that has this beautiful soteriology built into its tradition, theology, ecclesiology and daily practice and life. We encounter it and live it in every formal service as a church and informal gathering as friends. It is woven into the very fabric of the Orthodox way of life.
While Mark and I have taught this soteriology and our families have tried to live in it all the way back to our time at the Vineyard, through our association with the Emerging Church, and within our experience as a home church, it has only been during the last five months in an Orthodox parish that we have found the natural environment in which this salvation can be fully lived and experienced.
As Mark mentioned in his post, we finally feel at home.