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How does the Orthodox Church understand “salvation”?

In the period after the Great Schism, in which the Church of Rome separated from the Churches of the East,  the Western Christian doctrines of sin and salvation went through an evolution (or devolution) that make them distinct for the teachings of the Orthodox Church and the early Church.  The whole approach to sin became overly dominated by legal, juridical, and forensic language and categories, often taken from civil law. The problem of sin becomes an issue of guilt and punishment rather than a rescue mission of God's love and mercy.


By the 12-13th centuries, the "Satisfaction" theory of the atonement became almost the exclusive metaphor to describe God's work of salvation in the West.  Ascribed to Anselm of Canterbury, (a "Saint" in the Roman Catholic Church, died AD 1109), who adopted it from the feudal legal and cultural system of the time, the theory states the following:

1. Man's sin against God has offended God's honor and the divine justice.

2. An offense to one's honor requires an equal or greater payback (satisfaction or restitution) based on seriousness of the crime and the prestige of the person offended.

2. Since God is Infinite, the offense requires an infinite payment.

3. No finite man could make infinite satisfaction to restore justice and God's honor.

4. Therefore, God sent His (Infinite) Son, Jesus, to make restitution (payment) on the Cross and restore God's honor and sense of justice.

There are several serious problems with the Satisfaction Theory.  It makes assumptions that are neither biblical nor found in the early Church Fathers. The first is that sin requires a satisfaction or payment.  In the parable of the Prodigal Son, in which the younger son spoiled half of his inheritance, the Father did not require a payback. Rather He received Him in full forgiveness and killed the fatted calf upon his return (Lk. 15:11-24).  Second, God is not bound by His own sense of justice. He is not unable to forgive "unless" an equal restitution is made.  Quite the opposite. Third, sin is not a crime that primarily results in guilt that must be paid for.  It is rather a disease or distortion that must be healed and redirected.  Finally, and most importantly, the theory makes sin God's problem, instead of man's problem. It is God who needs to change His attitude (i.e. repent) rather than man who needs to repent and come back to God.  In this view, we are saved "from God"!  The Satisfaction Theory distorts both God's and man's role in the works of salvation.  

Thomas Aquinas (another Roman Catholic Saint, died AD 1274)) added the element of punishment to the theory instead of mere satisfaction.  The Protestant Reformers, having received the inheritance of Satisfaction Atonement, naturally adopted this theory.  John Calvin, in particular, developed the theory further insisting on the need for punishment for sin. Thus, it was said that God "punished" Jesus on the Cross in order to satisfy God's "wrath."

The Orthodox Christian approach to salvation is in stark contrast to the Western approach.  While there is some guilt associated with sin, guilt is not the real problem; nor is punishment the solution. Christ did not come to save us from guilt but from sin and death.

In Orthodoxy, sin is not understood as a crime necessitating punishment but as an illness in need of cure. Man sins because his nature has been corrupted and needs to be healed and renewed, brought into union with incorruption. It is death and the fear of death that has held man in bondage (Heb. 2:15), not guilt.10  And death can only be overcome by Life, that is, Jesus Christ.

Jesus, the God-Man, became incarnate to restore human nature to the likeness of God; He was crucified to destroy the power of sin; and He was raised to fill our nature with divine grace, God’s divine energies, giving us power to overcome death. We are indeed saved by grace. Salvation is the condition of being united to the Savior by grace, that is, by receiving the uncreated grace and energies of God.

For the Orthodox, salvation is not a mere one-time event but a whole way of life that places us within the rays of God’s saving grace. Salvation has a beginning, which includes a confession of faith in Jesus Christ as God and Savior, followed by Christian baptism and chrismation. But salvation is also a lifelong process by which we incorporate Christ’s life as our own, so that we might be found spiritually in the same place as the Apostle Paul, who, toward the end of his life, said, “it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).

While personal faith is always essential, one is saved in cooperation with the action of the Church: “On the first day we make them Christians; on the second catechumens; on the third, we exorcise them . . . instruct them . . . and then we baptize them.”11 As the Body of Christ, the Church extends God’s grace to the world through the Holy Spirit. The Church facilitates and prepares the soil of the heart of one who desires salvation. She then immerses that soul in the life of salvation in God’s Church, Christ’s Body.


In baptism we are joined to Christ (Gal. 3:27); we personally participate in His death and Resurrection (Rom. 6:3–5) and are therefore “born again” (or “born from above,” John 3:3). However, just as a newborn baby must be nourished and grow in strength and character, the newly baptized must grow in faith and continue to walk in the light of salvation (Eph. 5:8; 1 John 1:7).

For Orthodox Christians, salvation is not just a ticket to heaven after death; it is participation in the life of God now in this life, as well as a never-ending and ever-increasing participation in the life to come.  Salvation is not merely a mental or cognitive acceptance or belief in Christ; it is an organic reality of communion with God through Christ by the acquisition of God’s Spirit (or “grace”).


10 Following the teaching of St. John Chrysostom, Fr. John Romanides writes, “ Through the power of death and the devil, sin that reigns in man gives rise to fear and anxiety and to the general instinct of self-preservation and survival.  Thus, Satan manipulates man’s fear and his desire for self-satisfaction, raising up sin in him, in other words, transgression against the divine will regarding unselfish love, and provoking man to stray from his original destiny. Since weakness is caused in the flesh by death, Satan moves man to countless passions and leads him to devious thoughts, actions, and selfish relations with God as well as with his fellow man. Sin reigns both in death and in the mortal body because ‘the sting of death is sin.’” ( The Ancestral Sin, Ridgewood, NJ: Zephyr Publishing, 2002, p. 162.)

11 Canon Eight of the Second Ecumenical Council, as quoted in Entering the Orthodox Church, p. 20.

© Fr. Michael Shanbour

Does the Orthodox Church understand salvation as God declaring a person “not guilty"?

It is helpful to make a distinction between redemption and salvation.  The Orthodox Church teaches that God alone has redeemed mankind through the cross and resurrection.  Salvation is the process of accepting and incorporating that act of redemption personally.  Salvation is therefore a process of transformation (Rom. 5:12) that has a beginning in time, in some cases more dramatic than others. 


Salvation begins with faith in Christ as Lord and Savior but is not merely a matter of being declared “not guilty” by legal decree, regardless of a person's inner spiritual condition. Otherwise there would be no need of repentance or baptism (see Acts 2:38) and salvation or "justification" would be just as external to the human condition as was the O.T. Law.  But God has sent Christ to regenerate us, to effect an inner transformation, to give us a "new heart" (Ez. 36:26), to become "partakers of the divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4), to "put on Christ" (Gal. 3:27).


Through faith and baptism, one is regenerated and restored to God's image, united to Christ's resurrected humanity, and thus opened to God's divine Spirit.  Salvation then is an organic restoration to union with God, which must be continually preserved and nurtured.  We are "saved," but we are also “being saved” (1 Cor. 1:18; 2 Cor. 2:15) by God’s grace.  Salvation begins in time but is not merely a static, one-time event.  It is a path that presumes continual repentance and growth in faith and sanctification.


The Greek word for salvation designates “healing” and "wholeness." The Orthodox understanding of life in Christ views sin and salvation in terms of illness and healing of the soul, rather than guilt and punishment.  The whole life of the Orthodox Church is given as a means to this restoration of spiritual health, i.e. to bring the human person into an authentic union with God, to become Christ-like, and to be more and more open to the Spirit of God.  The life of the Church is nothing other than this life of salvation and grace accessible to all who would avail themselves of it. 


© Fr. Michael Shanbour

How does the Orthodox Church view “predestination”?

Salvation is not seen as a legal transaction that releases man from punishment, but as a relationship and a process of sanctification by God’s grace.  We are not merely saved but are “being saved” (1 Cor. 1:18; 2:15).

While salvation begins at some moment in time, it is maintained by ongoing cooperation with the Holy Spirit through faith.  The Orthodox ultimately understand salvation as union with God.  It requires a life of love and faith, repentance and prayer.  Salvation is not something to possess, but to abide in.  Thus, the Orthodox reject the idea of predestination since it makes man’s free will of no consequence.  


© Fr. Michael Shanbour

Does the Orthodox Church believe we are saved by works?

The Orthodox do not believe and have never believed that we are “saved by works.” We believe in accordance with the Scriptures that we are “saved by grace through faith” (Eph. 2:8).  However, the Orthodox know grace to be the real presence, power, and energies of God, freely given by Him to those who in faith have opened themselves to Him by their free will. God’s grace is not imposed on anyone.

Grace is not merely a juridical release from guilt but a real participation in the life of God Himself. This entrance of grace into the human fabric was made possible when Jesus Christ joined His divine nature with our human nature, trampled down death by His death, and raised our human nature, now glorified and filled with grace, to the life of the Trinity through His Resurrection, Ascension, and sitting at the right hand of God.

We are saved by grace—by acquiring and abiding in this grace. According to the teaching of the Scriptures, the early Church, and the Orthodox Church today, salvation is the consequence of acquiring grace, which brings us into union with God.  The Protestant understanding tends to make salvation a mere idea or concept, whereas the Orthodox teach that salvation is a real participation in God Himself.

God’s grace is available and active through a life of authentic repentance, which means bearing one’s cross and embracing ascetical self-denial (love).  Grace is nurtured and deepened through partaking in the sacramental life and especially the Holy Eucharist, through the Church’s services of prayer, through the reading and hearing of the Scriptures, and by obedience to His commandments, which include good works (Eph. 2:10).

However, His grace is never given automatically, nor does the Church dispense it in some mechanistic way. It is always given freely as a gift according to God’s personal will. We can never earn it, but we can place ourselves in a position to receive the gift more readily: “Behold I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me” (Rev. 3:20). By revelation we know that He gives in accordance with our faith in Him and love for Him, which is also manifested in love for our neighbor.

Again we agree with evangelicals that we are saved by grace through faith. However, for the Orthodox, faith is not mere cognitive belief in Christ, but “life in Christ” (Rom. 8:2). We live within this faith through the life of the Church, which is Christ’s Body (Rom. 7:4; 1 Cor. 12:27), and by appropriating the faith of Christ into our lives. Baptism and Eucharist are not “works” but acts of faith and blessings of God’s grace bestowed freely upon us by God through His Church. No one is baptized by his own work; God baptizes.12  The same is true for all the Sacraments of the Church—God feeds us with the Body and Blood of His Son, God ordains to the priesthood, God forgives in Confession, God heals in Holy Unction, and so forth.

The Eastern Orthodox Church has never taught that the image of God in man was obliterated through Adam’s sin.  The Church Fathers taught that the image was “darkened” and that the God-given powers of the soul became misdirected and distorted. The consequences of the Fall included that man was inclined to sin, but he is by no means incapable of good. Even in fallen man, sin is not a necessity.

Yet after the Fall man could not be saved through his own efforts, no matter how righteous, since “death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those who had not sinned according to the likeness of the transgression of Adam” (Rom. 5:14). It was necessary that man’s nature be regenerated by the Incarnation of Christ, that sin be overcome by His death, and that death itself be defeated and transformed by His glorious Resurrection. Our human nature needed to be healed and opened again to the deifying rays of His grace.

We also understand salvation to be synergistic—it requires participation by God and man. This is not just a fifty–fifty proposition but requires one hundred percent from God and one hundred percent from man. God plays the primary part by making it possible for man to be saved through His work of redemption and by His unending love and mercy. God continually seeks man’s salvation, awaiting his return like the father in the parable of the prodigal son. But man has an essential part as well, the part of cooperation and incorporation, since God has given free will to His creatures. God does not predestine anyone to salvation or condemnation; rather He “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4).

12  In Orthodox Christian baptism the priest does not say “I baptize you” but “The servant of God is baptized.”  The formula is important, since it reveals the understanding that it is God who is acting and doing the baptizing. 

© Fr. Michael Shanbour




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