Local News: The Music Department of Belhaven University in Jackson will present an "Evening of Diamonds" on Saturday, October 19 at 7:30 p.m. The concert, which will feature Hillary Mauler and Tiffany Delgado, a piano duo team from Utah, is a part of the Preston Chambers Music Series. Mauler and Delgado were the first prize winners of the National Federation of Music Clubs 2013 Ellis Duo National Competition held at Belhaven University this past spring. For more information about this concert, go to www.belhaven.edu/news.
The Orthodox Church in America’s “Frequently Asked Questions” section of its web site contains an interesting inquiry from a Protestant asking about Hebrews 6—a passage that has disturbed many people because it appears to teach A. that it’s possible for true believers to fall away from the faith and B. that those who fall away are unable to be restored to repentance and be saved.
Father John Matusiak, Managing Editor of The Orthodox Church magazine and Senior Editor of the OCA web site, begins his answer by clarifying that, generally speaking, Protestant and Eastern Orthodox Christians have a different perspective on salvation itself.
1. Differing perspectives on salvation
First, Matusiak said, “For Orthodox Christians, salvation is a process, not a once-and-done event. It is because of the understanding of some Protestant bodies which hold that one is saved at a precise moment—when one makes a commitment to accept Jesus as Lord and Savior, or at some other moment in time—that much confusion arises. Orthodox Christianity understands that we are ‘being saved,’ not ‘already saved.’"
While it’s true that some Protestants overemphasize a moment of decision as the basis of one’s assurance (when in reality assurance should be based on Christ’s finished work), Protestants generally agree with Orthodoxy that salvation is a process. Reformed Christians often speak of salvation as a three-fold process. At conversion, we are saved from the penalty of sin. This aspect of salvation, justification, is past tense and is a once-for-all event. Throughout the Christian life, we are gradually, by God’s Spirit, being saved from the power of sin. This aspect of salvation, sanctification, is present tense. When we die and are taken to heaven, we will be saved from the presence of all sin. This aspect of salvation, glorification, is still future tense.
It would not be an exaggeration to say the 16th century Reformation was largely about Rome's tendency to equate justification and sanctification. The reformers taught that justification is a "free act of God's mercy", a moment where God declares a sinner to be righteous for Christ's sake. Sinners bring nothing to the table in the transaction except their need for forgiveness, and the pardon received is a decisive moment wherein a person passes from death to life. Though Biblically we are "being saved", it would be a great error to say we are "being justified", as this would imply that we are gradually being declared righteous by God. This implies that our right standing with God is linked to our performance and is not 100% an act of unmerited favor. Paul's famous statement, "Work out your salvation with fear and trembling" applies, in Reformation theology, to sanctification, not justification. Justification is entirely one-sided, God being the one doing the work, humans being on the receiving end. Sanctification, though, does involve human cooperation. The Spirit helps believers put sin to death, but believers have to exert themselves in the process.
Matusiak went on to explain: “Salvation, for Orthodox Christians, is seen as deliverance from the curse of sin and death, which makes it possible for us to enter into union with God through Christ the Savior. Salvation includes a process of growth of the whole person whereby the sinner is transformed into the image and likeness of God. One is saved by faith through grace, although saving faith involves more than belief. Faith must be active and living, manifested by works of righteousness, whereby we cooperate with God to do His will.”
Though Matusiak presents this as somewhat unlike the Protestant view of salvation, there’s really nothing in his explanation that is at variance with what Reformed churches teaches about salvation.
2. Differences on perseverance
Matusiak said: “The notion that one is already saved—and that one can know this absolutely and positively without taking into consideration where one’s life may lead one in the future—has always struck Orthodox Christianity as a bit odd. If one is already saved, then what need does one still have for a Savior? Is this not like saying that one who has been completely cured of cancer is still in need of chemo-therapy?”
In answer to Matusiak's poignant question, we still need a Savior because, to reference the three-fold explanation earlier, though we have been saved from the penalty of sin (“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”, Romans 8:1), we are still very much in need of being saved from the power and presence of sin. In Romans 7, the apostle Paul, saint that he was, says, “Wretched man that I am! Who shall save me from this body of death?” Paul is referencing his ongoing need of sanctification.
From the Protestant perspective, the Orthodox view of salvation, which minimizes personal assurance of salvation, is hard to reconcile with Paul's numerous passages wherein he speaks of our redemption as so utterly certain that he uses the past-tense. For instance, in Ephesians, he says, "We have been seated with Christ in heavenly places." At conversion, believers can know that they are in fact children of God. This is not the end of the story. When one becomes a child of God, the relationship can really begin. Though salvation is a process, knowing one is a child of God is a necessary prerequisite to begin with.
If one didn't know that one was "saved" in the sense of being forgiven and accepted by God, one could hardly progress at all in relationship with God. Fear, not love, would still be the theme of one's life. Believing that salvation is, in a sense, a one-time event should not imply a static relationship. A child adopted into a new family can thrive and begin to love the parents precisely because the fact of adoption has been settled. Nothing but insecurity would dominate the child's mind if there remained any doubt as to whether he was really a part of the family, or if he felt like he had to "perform" in order to stay in the family.
Matusiak said: “If ‘once saved, always saved’ is the maxim, would this imply that if I go on to lead an extremely evil life it ultimately does not matter since I have already been saved?” When one acknowledges, as the Orthodox Faith teaches, that we are 'being saved,' such considerations do not arise."
Unfortunately, Matusiak is not merely caricaturing evangelical Christianity, but describing a very real tendency among some churches to describe "perseverance of the saints" in just such a way--that if one has prayed a prayer to receive Christ at some point, leading an extremely evil life thereafter won't make much difference in the end. This isn't what Presbyterians believe, at least not judging by historic confessions.
Consider chapter 17 of the Westminster Confession, "Of the Perseverance of the saints""
"They, whom God hath accepted in his Beloved, effectually called, and sanctified by his Spirit, can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace, but shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternally saved. This perseverance of the saints depends not upon their own free will, but upon the immutability of the decree of election, flowing from the free and unchangeable love of God the Father; upon the efficacy of the merit and intercession of Jesus Christ, the abiding of the Spirit, and of the seed of God within them, and the nature of the covenant of grace: from all which ariseth also the certainty and infallibility thereof."
This succinct explanation of the Reformed view states that believers can not "totally" or "finally" fall away. This implies that it is possible for true Christians to wander from the faith for seasons. The end of chapter 17 says believers may "fall into grievous sins; and, for a time, continue therein". Westminster's point is that if one is truly God's child, God will intervene in the end, not allowing the breach to become permanent. Of crucial importance is Westminster's insistence that true believers persevere not through their own willpower but thanks to the merit and intercession of Jesus Christ. If Christ is praying for his elect to persevere in their faith, as Scripture tells us he is, one can rest assured that Christ's prayer is always effectual. The Reformed doctrine of the "Perseverance of the saints" doesn't mean that once a person is converted, it doesn't matter how the person lives from then on. Rather, it means that if a person is truly God's child, he or she will experience a real change of heart--a change that, despite struggles with the world, the flesh, and the devil, will be permanent.
Matusiak said, "While some Protestants would say that once a person is saved, he or she is always saved, and other Protestants would say that once a person is saved, he or she can lose his or her salvation, Orthodoxy, by virtue of its understanding of salvation as an ongoing process of spiritual growth, would say that one can indeed jeopardize one’s salvation, but that it is not realistic to say that one has 'lost' something that one has yet to experience or possess in its fullness."
This nuanced explanation of the historic doctrine of apostasy shows that Eastern Orthodoxy doesn't exactly fit into either Calvinism or Arminianism. All Biblical Christians should agree with Matusiak that as long as we are on earth we have yet to experience salvation "in its fullness". That doesn't mean, though, that assurance should elude us. If we have any measure of assurance that we are "being saved", we have some basis for assurance that we "will be saved". As Paul said in Philippians 1:6, "He who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it."
Reformed Christians often, with good reason, suspect that when the doctrine of the perseverance of (or as R.C. Sproul calls it, the preservation of) the saints is not affirmed, the only doctrinal alternative must be a stern legalism which grounds perseverance on human will and effort. Matusiak's closing remarks, though, illustrate that though he is not Reformed, he is also not under any impression that we enter God's kingdom through our merit. The accent is not on our work, but on God's mercy:
"If Our Lord commands us to 'forgive seventy times seven,' it is only because He is willing to forgive us at least that many times, provided that we, like the prodigal son, come to our senses, return to our Father, ask Him to accept us back into loving communion with Him, and humbly open ourselves to begin our journey to the salvation which finds its fulfillment in His Kingdom once again."