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Moving around for the Navy and college meant I visited a lot of churches. My standard protocol was to slouch in the back row then flee the instant the service wrapped up. (Introverts unite! Better yet, go over there.) But the church ladies were onto me. Before I could reach the door, they would sidle up with small talk before closing with the classic evangelical question: “So, are you saved?”
You encounter this question constantly in American Protestant circles since it’s such a foundational doctrine. Heaven or hell. Turn or burn. Sanctify or french fry. And the path to salvation is pretty straightforward. Sincerely recite the Sinner’s Prayer and you’re in for good.
You can find all the Swimming the Bosporus posts here.
There are variations, but here’s the Billy Graham version:
Dear Lord Jesus, I know that I am a sinner, and I ask for Your forgiveness. I believe You died for my sins and rose from the dead. I turn from my sins and invite You to come into my heart and life. I want to trust and follow You as my Lord and Savior. In Your Name. Amen.
My “Born Again” story is dull. I attended an evangelical church at age 15, heard I needed to say the Sinner’s Prayer, and did it. Some of my friends had an emotional altar call and others exchanged a life of addiction for a life in Christ. But, basically, if you said this prayer and meant it, you were eternally saved.
After this, you should attend church, study the Bible, and grow in the faith. This process is called “sanctification.” If you lost your way, you could “rededicate” your life to the Lord and get back on the right track. (I think I did this a time or two at church retreats.)
For the nondenominational world, this simple formula strips away all the rituals and hoop-jumping you see in Catholicism and some mainline denominations. No need for catechism or confirmation; a preacher can lead you to salvation on a busy street corner or right on your TV.
This belief was stressed most my life so I didn’t have reason to doubt it. Over the years, though, it seemed odd that the Scriptures never mandated a sinner’s prayer. If saying it is the most important decision any human can make this side of eternity, you’d think Jesus or the Apostles would have made it crystal clear.
Instead, Protestant pastors and theologians studied the Bible, drew together several passages, and created the prayer as a sort of summary. But the Bible itself doesn’t always align with it.
I first noticed this reading Acts. A jailer asked Paul and Silas how he could be saved and they said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household.” The household of Cornelius was also saved through the ministrations of Peter.
Did each member of these households make a personal decision for Christ? The New Testament never mentions it. I also knew from history books that some rulers led their entire city or region to Christianity with a mass baptism. Where those people saved?
I brought up this issue of “corporate salvation” to smart evangelical friends and we couldn’t figure out a good answer.
Other passages began to stand out. One epistle states, “For we have become partakers of Christ if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast to the end,” while another says, “And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart.” There are many similar teachings in the Gospels.
Being saved “if” you keep the faith is very different from “once saved, always saved.” However, I also saw plenty of Scriptures that seemed to back the evangelical view of eternal security. What troubled me is that a matter of such import wasn’t clearly spelled out for a dummy like me. I really didn’t want to get it wrong and wake up unsanctified and french-fried.
It’s important to note that Protestantism was a reaction to 16th-century Catholicism. Martin Luther, et al., thought Rome pushed salvation through works. The Reformers said works had nothing to do with it, rather it was faith alone. This is my severe simplification since entire libraries could be filled with books on the “faith vs. works” debate. I’ll leave the details to the experts.
But the Eastern Orthodox church never had this debate. “Faith vs. Works” began with St. Augustine in the Latin West, was further developed by Rome over the centuries, was rebutted by the Protestants, and continues to be argued across the West today.
The Orthodox position is (I’m simplifying again), If you have faith, you’re going to have works. Now that that’s settled, pick up your cross and let’s head up that mountain. Salvation is 100 percent a gift of God’s grace and there is nothing humans can do to “earn” it. But if you truly believe, good works are an integral part of living out your faith.
Even the concept of “salvation” is different for the East. The common evangelical understanding focuses almost exclusively on going to heaven or hell. It’s a binary; are you in or are you out? If you give your life to Christ, that instant is the place, date, and time you are saved. It’s done.
The Orthodox understanding is far broader.
Salvation is not a one-time event, but a lifelong process that begins here on Earth and continues into eternity. The Greek term is “theosis,” an unending process of becoming conformed to God. By participating in God’s work, we become more and more Christlike. This will continue in heaven.
Of course, no one can ever become God, the goal is to become more like Him day by day. Since we have free will, this requires our cooperation with God; a life of repentance and obedience. Faith and works aren’t an either/or but a both/and.
This understanding isn’t too far off from a phrase early reformers used: “We are justified by faith alone but not by a faith that is alone.”
So today, when someone asks me if I’m saved, I say, “I’m working out my salvation … with fear and trembling.”
Interestingly, the early Lutheran church reached out to Constantinople since they thought the Protestants and Orthodox must now be on the same page. But 500 years after the Great Schism, the two churches were speaking different languages, figuratively and literally.
So if you’re from a Western tradition and ask an Eastern Orthodox about faith vs. works or whether or not he’s “saved,” don’t be surprised if you get a blank stare. Or a 1,100-word reply trying to explain his answer.
Chapter 10 here.
This is ninth in the series “Swimming the Bosporus,” on my journey from the megachurch to the Orthodox Church. Installments every Sunday morning. Click here to see all the posts.Published in