Salvation Followups

Mom,

You had some great thoughts here.  I appreciate you honesty in sharing.  Let me run down the remaining sticking points and see if I can explain better.
English: Baptism in Russian Orthodox Church (S...

First, regarding infant baptism, and how that interacts with personal belief, let me quickly point out the history of infant baptism.  Looking at the early writings of the church you see very early mentions of the practice, and a consistent witness to the practice as being apostolic.  The only major writer I’m aware of that questioned whether infants should be baptized was Tertullian, and his beef wasn’t that baptizing infants wasn’t proper or apostolic, but rather grew out of his particular concern with whether a person shouldn’t prolong baptism as long as possible.  He and some contemporaries were thinking that after baptism there was no further forgiveness for sins.  You had to live perfectly after baptism, or else.  This certainly wasn’t the norm in Church thinking, thank God.  Otherwise the practice of infant baptism seems to be universally upheld, so there is definitely strong support for it in early writings and councils of the Church.  I won’t belabor the point with many quotes, but I will quote St. John Chrysostom here:

“You see how many are the benefits of baptism, and some think its heavenly grace consists only in the remission of sins, but we have enumerated ten honors [it bestows]! For this reason we baptize even infants, though they are not defiled by sins, so that there may be given to them holiness, righteousness, adoption, inheritance, brotherhood with Christ, and that they may be [Christ’s] members” (Baptismal Catecheses in Augustine, Against Julian 1:6:21 [A.D. 388]).
Not to leave too much on the strength of extra-Biblical witness, let me also point out some Bible passages that speak to infant baptism: Luke 18:15-16Acts 2:38-39Acts 16:331 Corinthians 1:16.  Note that in the later two that entire households are baptized, which demonstrates the communal nature of the baptism and the likely admission of children or infants.  You don’t see much about infant baptism in the New Testament because it is the earliest history.  They are the first generation, and the converts were adults who were hearing the message, not children who were born into Christian families.  We don’t get a good glimpse on the ongoing Christian community there, but we do see infant baptism in the early writings, where it is the norm.
The practice of baptizing infants can seem confusing to evangelicals because we draw from the 16th century tradition of a believer’s baptism, stemming from Zwingli.  Martin Luther (and modern day Lutherans) believed in infant baptism.  John Calvin also strongly supported the practice.  There are many factors in the modern rejection of the practice, I’m sure, but I don’t think the current evangelical understanding of what baptism is and what it does matches up well with early Christian doctrine.
That being said, you ask some good questions.  Where is [my son]‘s will in his baptism?  If he’s baptized, is he Orthodox for life?  What if he decides not to be Orthodox later?
Obviously as an infant and even as a small child a person has limited ability to understand and will their own conversion, so [my son] would not be approaching Orthodoxy in the same manner I would be.  Nevertheless this should not be a bar to his participation in Christ or receiving the Holy Spirit, and Jesus said it was not in Luke 18.  Evangelicals have a strong tradition of understanding salvation as primarily a mental act on the part of the believer, which is not at all the Orthodox understanding, but they fail to recognize that even so their salvation is not a solo act.  Their salvation rests first on the work of God and His drawing.  We also have the teaching of our parents, pastors and friends.  We do not approach God on our own steam.  Neither does a child approaching baptism.  They are drawn by God the same as an adult, and also are borne up by the faith of their parents and community.  What more could God require of an infant or small child?
The situation for an adult is a different matter.  A person must approach God with their entire being, and if that includes a mind capable of understanding salvation then that mind must be in communion with the process or it doesn’t happen.  That’s why a person cannot be baptized AGAINST their will. So to your question of what happens if [my son] rejects Christ or the Church at a later age, I’d say, the same thing happens to him as would happen to anyone else regardless of age.  If you reject Christ you cut off communion with Him.  This is not a once-saved-always-saved one way trip.  Like you said, we are all responsible for what we believe and our free will is always a factor.  His will be as well.
You also asked about my comments about striving for your entire life in your salvation.  You wondered how you could strive your entire life to enter salvation, whether that boils down to works salvation, and where the assurance of salvation lies.
The Orthodox understanding of salvation does not follow the medieval tradition of Anselm in defining the work of Jesus as substitutionary, while most of Protestantism and Catholicism does.  Not seeing salvation as a primarily legal act, and resting on a mental assertion by the believer causes Orthodoxy to see salvation in a different way.  Salvation is reconnecting humanity to God, reestablishing communion.  It’s not a “legal fiction” where we sinners are merely seen as righteous, but the process by which we actually truly become righteous.  I don’t feel I can do the Orthodox view of salvation any justice in an email.  To understand it better I would recommend reading On the Incarnation, by St. Athanasius (written around 300 A.D.).  It’s a very short book but explains WHY Christ became incarnate.  I found it to be very helpful in understanding this issue.  Another book that might be helpful is a modern book called Life: Orthodox Doctrine of Salvation, by Clark Carlton.  He can help untangle the threads here.
Here’s some quick comments I can give.  In Orthodoxy salvation isn’t that thing that happened instantaneously when you were 6, became aware of your sinful condition, and asked Jesus to save you.  Salvation is the entire work of your life, in partnership with God, where you are coming into conformity with Christ and community with Him.  You are saved when you have been completely redeemed from the slavery of sin and death, and the ill effects of that damage to you, and are resurrected into a new life of communion with God.  The greek word translated as salvation means to make whole, to preserve, to make safe.  When we are made whole, then we can say we are saved.  It is not something that will happen entirely in this life, and so the Orthodox will not be able to answer an evangelical if they ask, “Are you saved?”  The only way to answer that is, “No, but I’m being saved.”
This is not works salvation, as some people paint Roman Catholic doctrine.  There is no sense of meriting anything.  You don’t work to earn a legal standing with God.  You work with God to become whole.  So there’s not a sense of salvation as being a payoff that you earn.  Salvation is when you are wounded and can no longer walk, but then you get the medical attention you need and do physical therapy, and someday are made whole again and can walk.  You have to work at it, and you need God’s help, and it has nothing to do with merit.  Many early Christian writers referred to the Church as the hospital for sinners.  This is not to diminish the other works of salvation, which does include forgiveness by God, and a future judgment.
Is there an assurance of salvation?  I’d have to say, no.  Of course this is not due to any change or uncertainty of God.  We know that there is no change in Him, and no uncertainty.  Our own will, however, is quite changeable and very uncertain.  We do have to persevere in the work of salvation.  God does not force anything.  You might say that the only one who can pluck us from the hand of God is ourselves.  Of course the New Testament is full of language that speaks to the necessity for a believer to persevere.  1 Corinthians 9:24-271 Timothy 4:16Hebrews 12:12 Timothy 4:7-8
I want to confirm for you that Orthodoxy certainly does not teach that a person who is baptized can hit cruise control and just wait to die.  There is no sense in which anyone is entitled to salvation, because again, salvation isn’t a prize. It’s wholeness, and the process requires our participation.  If you don’t participate you don’t become whole.  If we don’t stay attached to the vine, how can we live?  Certainly there are many Christians of all stripes who live lives choked by worldly concerns, and given over to carnality or laziness.  The Orthodox are certainly not any more proof against this than others, but if they are paying any attention they certainly have no excuse.
As for our children I expect that they will learn to make personal and life-long active commitments to Christ in the same way [my wife] and I did.  We watched our parents.
Love you,
Mark
Salvation Followups

On Salvation

[To understand what this blog is, read this first.]

Mom,

Christ Pantocrator, detail of the Deesis mosaic

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.

Mark

On Salvation