An Eastern Difficulty with Understanding the Concept of the Assurance of Salvation

by Gjergji Evangjeli

 

I was listening to a speech by Reverend N. T. Wright, one of my favorite Pauline theologians who, in passing, mentioned the assurance of salvation. The introduction of this concept made me pause, specifically because it called to mind a conversation that I had had with an Eastern Orthodox priest a few years before who had been frustrated at a conference after hearing several statements that exclaimed with confidence that different non-Christians could be saved. That topic aside, his reasoning was particularly interesting to me. He said that he could not be sure of his own salvation, or of the salvation of those next to him, so he was confused about how one could be so forward as to confidently state that certain non-Christians are saved.

It also reminded me of an anecdote by Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, a foremost Eastern Orthodox theologian and retired Oxford professor. At some point while waiting for the train at Oxford, he was approached by a gentleman who asked Metropolitan Kallistos whether he was saved. The Metropolitan confesses that he had to pause for a moment. If he said “yes,” he would be telling a lie. If he said “no,” the gentleman would be justified in asking him what he was doing dressed in a cassock pretending to be a Christian leader. After a momentary pause, he responded, “I trust in the mercy of God that I am in the process of being saved.” Metropolitan Kallistos’ attitude and his response shine a light into the Orthodox—and, in my view at least, the Catholic—understanding of salvation and the different attitudes which the differing ecclesiastical bodies have toward concepts such as the assurance of salvation.

 

The East sees God’s grace as being a sharing into the uncreated energies of God. The function of His grace, then, is made explicit. It provides the possibility of transforming humans from fallen beings into god-like ones. The life of the faithful is this very process of conversion, or better evolution, from human pettiness to divine-infused greatness. The intended end of this is theosis, by which the East means the finished product of the Christian life, which turns mere mortals god-like. In “The Weight of Glory,” C. S. Lewis alludes to this principle by saying that God does not allow us to see our neighbors and ourselves as we will truly be in Heaven, because if we did, we would be overwhelmingly compelled to bow down and worship them. Thus, the Eastern Church sees the words “salvation” and “theosis” as synonyms. In the Catholic Church, there is a clear equivalence between theosis and sanctification. Salvation, then, is a process—not a one-time event—that can, sadly, be aborted. 

 

By contrast, it seems as if the Protestant understanding of salvation extends only to Justification. That we are justified by faith is clear, but this is not enough. A marriage, a beloved image for the mystics when it comes to talking about the relationship between God and the believer, is not completed with “I do.” It starts there. Just like in a marriage, the believing person is not finished at accepting Christ as their Lord and Savior. St. Paul himself reminds us of this fact. He says, “Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it… So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air … so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified” (1 Cor. 9: 24, 26-7). If St. Paul saw himself as still running the race, if he himself had not gained assurance of salvation, by what deeds greater than his may we ever hope to attain it? More importantly, why did he pick such dynamic images for salvation?

 

I do not mean, here, to criticize my Protestant brethren, but merely to bring to the forefront a different and older perspective which has considered and written very little on one of the main topics of the Reformation because it sees it as asking the wrong question. A Christian who spends a significant amount of time wondering whether he or those around him will be in Heaven or in Hell in 100 years is not only asking the wrong question, but spending his time carelessly. Much more important than that is to live each moment of our lives in prayerful love of God and humble charity to our neighbor, the twin-principles which Our Lord told us are the whole of the Law, the Law which he inscribed into our hearts. If we do this, which is to say, if we are willing to shed the old man and be dressed in Christ, if we are concerned with being present and the present moment, we can confidently throw ourselves into God’s mercy one last time at the Gates of Heaven and be admitted in, even without having lived as if we were sure of it.

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