[To understand what this blog is, read this first.]
It’s been quite a while since I wrote a letter on Orthodoxy. I’m sorry that I let such a time elapse, but you know how busy a season we’ve all had. I had to divert to some other things, but I wanted to stop and take some time and follow back up on your last question email.
It seems that you’ve perhaps been reading some on the subject of salvation in Orthodoxy by your comments. I don’t know what you’ve encountered, and what might still be fuzzy, but I’ll just try to limit myself to the question you posed and let you ask other follow ups if you choose.
I think that your question revolves around the difference in understanding of salvation in Orthodoxy, where a particular moment of conversion is not focused on. There doesn’t seem to be a definitive moment where a person comes to the front, kneels down, says the sinner’s prayer, and then is counted a Christian (as some would do it). Well, in fact there is that sort of moment, in baptism and chrismation, but it might be missed since Protestants go about things in a different order. That is something that traditionally happens to an Orthodox believer as a baby, though. So where does the actual affirmative commitment come in? When does it become “real?” When is a person responsible?
So, if I’m understanding you, I think you are concerned that in Orthodoxy you have the same danger that a Protestant might have in wrongly applying a sort of “once saved, always saved” theology. They might think that having been baptized they are assured of salvation, or that there is no need to make continued efforts in salvation.
While I’m certain there are Orthodox believers who take such a hands off approach, that is not the teaching and practice of the Church. Rather their theology should effectively push people in the other direction. There isn’t a sense in which your salvation is complete in this life. Their understanding of what salvation is, and how it is effected would tell them that salvation is a state that they work their entire lives to enter, not relying on their own strength or merits, but nonetheless requiring a daily taking up of their cross to follow Christ and become conformed to His image. Like Paul they would strive to persevere. And as he told the church in Philippi, they continue to work out their salvation.
Since salvation is a life long process there’s not the same emphasis on the one time conversion act. Every person must continually convert, and given a life-time of conversion a single event stands out less. There’s a beginning point, just as there is a beginning point to your life, or to a marriage. As important as those beginning points are to life, or marriage, they pale in comparison to the importance of your entire life, or your entire marriage. It’s just so much more. The Orthodox celebrate a person’s baptism as the entrance into the life of Christ, but don’t consider that to be a finished work of salvation. It’s just the beginning.
So, should we become Orthodox [my son] would become a member of the Church as an infant. I’m sure infant baptism is also quite bizarre sounding, and I’d be happy to do a letter devoted to that. As he grows his Christianity will grow with him. His understanding of what it means to be in relationship with God will mature naturally, and change and deepen, and I would expect him to make constant commitment to Christ as he ages. There may not be a particular date where he ever “says the sinner’s prayer,” but rather I expect that every day he will pray to God along with the publican (and Orthodox around the world) and say, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner!”
[Other questions from my mom regarding Mary and the role of godparents.]
I haven’t addressed the role of Mary in any way, but that’ll have to be another email, if you want the low down there. It’s a difficult subject for Protestants, but much less scary in practice than you’d think.
I don’t have a lot of godparent experience, but what I’ve heard from other Orthodox believers leads me to believe that the relationship can vary greatly. For some people godparents are extensions of the family. Some are great spiritual leaders, some are more like friends, and some have little to no impact at all. I’m working on getting to know some men in the parish more intimately to give myself every opportunity of having a successful relationship in this area. Certainly the relationship with your priest is also a very meaningful and important one, and here I am in luck in that the local priest has been extremely helpful to me in this journey.
You mentioned recently that you were planning on going back and re-reading some prior emails recently. Did that kick up any other questions? I haven’t addressed all of our original topics yet, but I’m open to whatever comes up. I can keep plugging away at those, or if you feel satisfied I can stop wherever. You let me know.