Soteriology - The Orthodox View of salvation

The underlying assumption within the Orthodox Church’s doctrine of man is that man was created to participate with God. Participation in God’s energies to work towards the fulfillment of His perfect will. In the biblical account in the Garden of Eden, we read that man was created both in the image and likeness of God. The Orthodox Church interprets that image and likeness to mean that man has two different aspects. John of Damascus believed "the expression according to the image indicates rationality and freedom, while the expression according to the likeness indicates assimilation to God through virtue.”1

The image of God in man is an icon of everything within man that separates him from the animal creation, and is what makes him a human being: free will, reason, and moral responsibility. Kallistos Ware also argues that we are God’s kin, “It means that between us and Him there is a point of contact, an essential similarity.” This is hopeful, and it means that despite the gulf that the sin of Adam, as well as our own sins, have created between creator and creation, that gap can be bridged. This bridge is achieved through our cooperation with God’s energies towards the deification of man. In that respect, the likeness of God is the goal for which we must all aim. No matter how marred man may be by his sin, he will never lose the image in which he was created, but our likeness is dependent on our own moral integrity and virtue. His likeness within us is what we have lost to corruption of sin.

The goal of every human being is to become fully human, and therefore achieve our pre-fallen state. This is to achieve a state of divinity, and in essence become like God, to achieve union with God as we had once before. This is deification, or theosis in Greek. First, it is scripture in which we find the directive to become like God: “You are gods, and all of you are children of the most high.”3 We “are gods” because we were created in God’s image and likeness. We can never lose the image in which we were created, but our likeness to God has been far removed by our sin, both personal and ancestral. Unfortunately, our sins became an insurmountable obstacle that we are not able to overcome on our own. Yet, God in his providence and love for mankind gave us a way out of our sins. He sent his only begotten Son to earth, fully man yet also fully God, to die for our sins upon the cross, as one holy, sufficient, and spotless sacrifice for the sins of the whole world.

God became man so that we can once again become gods. He became man, so that we can become by His grace that which he is by nature. He became man so that we may learn how to become like God, for “Christ is the teacher Who endows men with true knowledge, leading them to a love exempt from desires and righteousness whose prime fruit is contemplation.”4 So, we contemplate Christ and the Holy Mysteries of the Church, and it is by our contemplation and participation that we are illumined. Our participation with the Church, the body of Christ, and the Holy Mysteries therein, cleanses us of our sins. Cleansed of our sins, both personal and ancestral, we can then begin the process of deification by an amendment of life, conforming ourselves to the example set by Christ’s life and ministry here on earth.

Theosis is not an individual act or process. It is the ultimate end for everyone, and all of humanity. Therefore, theosis presupposes life within the Church. As the saying goes, we are saved together, but damned alone. It is within the Church that we become a part of, and partake of the body of Christ. It is within the Church in which we partake of the sacraments, that which is necessary to acquire the sanctifying spirit and be transformed into the divine likeness of God. It is within the Church that we come into communion with Christ, and so participate in the divine worship of the Church triumphant, the Church militant being the living icon of that Church in heaven. It is within the Church that the meaning of the scriptures is revealed to us. It is in the Church alone that the truth is revealed to us, and the means necessary to our salvation are provided to us. The Church is taught by the Holy Spirit, and there exists an indissoluble unity between God and his Church, for “The Church is the earthly heaven in which the heavenly God moves and dwells.” 5> We must choose to be where God is, in striving towards a unity of spirit. For, it is within the Church that we are exposed to the Holy Mysteries, as such Saint Ignatius of Antioch writes that along with baptism, faith, and charity, our works will be our deposits to received what is our due: “Let your baptism be ever your shield, your faith a helmet, your charity a spear, your patience a panoply. Let your works be deposits, so that you may receive the sum that is due you.”6

It was God’s will that spoke all of creation into existence. It was God’s will that breathed life into man. It was God’s will that we should have communion with God, walking in His presence as sons and daughters. Yet, it was our will that introduced sin into the world, and brought about our fallen state, thus removing us from union with God. Origin agrees with Paul’s assertion that sin dwells within us. The cravings of the passions arise in us, the flames of which are fanned by the Devil, and so is the source for man’s division against himself. Death was the punishment prescribed for the disobedience of man, to restore the incorruption of man by the destruction of his Body.

It is easy to infer that an agreement between the wills of both God and man is a necessary part of the deification of man. Let us regard the words of Paul in his letter to the Philippians: “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.”7 (Phil 2:12-13) This is a prime example of Synergia, God working together with man to bring man to himself. God’s part is to work actively in us, and our part is to humbly submit to Him and the infinite wisdom of the work, both God and man having an operative role in man’s path towards theosis. God does not give people grace without the cooperation of their free will. We are fallen, working with God through our own free will. God knocks, but we must open the door. God calls each one of us, but we must come to him of our own free will. We participate in the divine nature because God participated in our human nature.

Polycarp affirms the above Pauline teaching, along with Clement and Ignatius. Polycarp taught that a Christian must adhere to a number of moral commands, and we must do this if we wish to inherit the Kingdom. To have faith without obedience to these very moral commands will not be enough. He argues that anyone who is growing in faith, accompanied by hope, and led by love, lives in fulfillment of the command of righteousness. Athenagoras (2nd Century AD) also argues that Christians must live in a strict moral manner because they must give an appropriate account of all their life in order to receive the reward of salvation.

As regards His will, and our own, we must acknowledge two operative realities necessary for our salvation. First of all, all things are necessary to, and require the grace of God. Also, God does not give people grace without the cooperation of their free will. God and man both work together towards the salvation of man. This is the true essence of the Greek work synergia, which literally means, working together. We must choose God, for God chose us. God is love, and God loves us, making love the very means by which we relate to God. For love to exist within us, we must have the free will to choose it. Neither could God compel us to love Him, for such a love would be artificial, forced, and a violation of our free will. Free will is central to our theology, as it is closely tied to the manner in which we relate to the Trinity through Jesus in our process of theosis. In that we were made in the image of God, free will is a fundamental aspect of our being as human beings. To become fully human then is to fully submit and submerge our will to His will, unifying ourselves with God, his grace, and his perfect will. It is through His perfect will that that we ourselves will become perfect, both in image and likeness, through the example and sacrifice of Jesus Christ our Lord.

[1] - John of Damascus, On the Orthodox Faith, II,12

[2] - Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Church 224

[3] - Psalm 82:6

[4] - Kelly 184

[5] - Germanus, Patriarch of Constantinople

[6] - Letter of St. Polycarp 6

[7] - Philippians 2:12-13, New King James Version