Orthodox Church of the Mother of God

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Salvation and Justification

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Salvation and Justification  (A brief introduction to Orthodox subjective soteriology)

Archbishop Mikhail (Mudyugin)


The quest for salvation in the life beyond the grave is a phenomenon which is characteristic of the spiritual life of many if not most, conscious Christians. The concept of salvation can vary. For some, it is a personal delight, joy, peace or to say, a state of blessedness. For others it is an eternal presence before God and communion with Him, with the saints, that is with others who were saved and primarily with people who were close and dear here on earth. For others it is something positive but void of any kind of a concrete concept. The shared conceptualization for everyone is that there is something positive to be anticipated in the future.

 

The desire for salvation is natural and is substantially rooted in the self-esteem common to each person. No matter how exalted are our concepts of eternal bliss in comparison with that on earth, psychologically this quest is in no way different from a desire for personal advantage in the earthly understanding of that term. The outstanding Russian theologian and soteriologist the late Patriarch Sergii, wrote in the beginning of our century:

"The self-loving person commences his effort for what he imagines to be his own salvation with an extremely reluctant divestiture of everything he relishes and all that he still desires. He begins to carry out the Divinely mandated Law precisely because behavior to the contrary in the end result, is not expedient for a selfish person even though that behavior continues to be desirable and delightful."

Indeed, the elementary eschatological truth remains that "we shall all stand before the judgement seat of Christ," where "each of us shall give account of himself to God" (Romans 14: 10, 12), and "the doers of the law will be justified" (Romans 2:13) and "each shall receive his wages according to his labor" from God (I Cor. 3:8), "For he will render to every man according to his works" (Romans 2:6). This brings about the desire to escape eternal torment i.e. the punishment for sins, and "to earn" eternal life or eternal bliss in the Kingdom of Heaven. Such concepts, which our theology designates as "juridical", are based either on a conscious or an unconscious presumption of the existence of a juridical relationship between God and man. God promulgates a law, i.e. precise religious and moral norms of conduct, the adherence to which assures the granting of eternal rewards and non-adherence carries with it the application of sanctions in the form of temporal or eternal punishment.

It would appear that such a juridical approach leaves no room for Christ’s redemptive act and negates objective soteriology. However this difficulty is easily overcome by the assertion that Christ, by His death on the cross, lifted the condemnation of original sin from mankind and that the salvific consequences of his sacrifice are acquired by each person through the sacrament of Baptism. In other words, through Baptism, the individual receives justification, which consists in the lifting of the fatal consequences of Original Sin and the remission of personal sins committed prior to Baptism.

Following Baptism, the individual’s fate is determined by his personal conduct and first of all, by the direction of his will (liberum arbitrium). If, along with his good works, he commits sins then, when he comes before God’s judgement, his fate will be determined by the impartial weighing of his good and evil deeds. The direction of the balance towards one or the other side determines his fate: eternal bliss or eternal torment.

Even today such a concept has the broadest appeal and is held by many Christians of all denominations. However, it received its particular development in the theology of the Middle Ages and in greater or lesser ways was reflected in the classical works of Anselm of Canterbury, Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus. It had a pronounced influence on Orthodox ‘Scholastic" theology as well, which even today is not only perceived within the broad sphere of popular consciousness but is found in a large number of theological works and textbooks. Furthermore. such a concept cannot be easily refuted as being unscriptural. Over and above the Pauline citations given above, one can find in the Gospels themselves, especially in the Synoptics, any number of citations which clearly speak of reward and punishment as a legitimate stimulus for Christian behavior.

Even the Sermon on the Mount imposes the consequences for a number of violations of the Law and the degrees of punishments for offenses are significantly expanded when compared with the Mosaic Law (Mt. Ch. 5). On the other hand, nearly all of the positive injunctions are accompanied with promises of a reward (Mt 5:3-12; 6:1-18). The eschatological descriptions given in the parable about the weeds (Mt 13:24-30, 36-43) and in the prophesy about the Last Judgement (Mt 25:31-46) state without reservation that the righteous will go into "eternal life" and the sinners into "eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels" (Mt 25:41, 46). Even the mention of such less significant good deeds, such as the offering of "a cup of cold water" (Mt. 10:42) or a magnanimous invitation to a banquet (Lk 14:12-14) does not pass without the promise of an eschatological recompense.

It is not surprising that having such a firm New Testamental foundation, the ancient Church Fathers, - both Eastern and Western - constantly made use of the fear of eschatological retribution and the promises of eternal reward as a means for the moral influence upon their contemporaries - the members of the Christian Church. Examples of such expressions can be found in great abundance in the works of Basil the Great, John Chrysosdom, Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, Pope Gregory the Great and especially in the zealous ascetics of the Fourth to Sixth centuries, Anthony, Dorotheus, Isaiah, Cassian, Mark and others.

However, the view that salvation is a reward for good deeds finds serious objections. In truth, it is difficult to agree that the fundamental and optimal or even the only stimulus for a good life must rest upon a personal benefit, even if only an eschatological one.

If the proclamation of the Good News merely reinforced the demands towards the individual which were prescribed by the Old Testament law, and the very characteristic of the mutual relationship between God and man remains the same, what then is the meaning of the words ". . .you were called to freedom, brethren" (Gal 5:13). Where is that freedom if, as in the past, it is necessary to carry out the Law and now even with significantly greater demands? To be sure, there is no circumcision, there are no petty prescriptions which in Judaism impinged upon every step of a righteous Jew. However, the moral prescriptions are even more severe and cruel and are reinforced with intimidating in all their ramifications, eschatological sanctions, of which the Old Testament man had only vague and speculative conceptions.

It is not surprising that the Church Fathers’ theological mind looked for and fortunately found in the Sacred Scriptures, and in their own inspired understanding, another more enlightened and sublime aspect of Christianity.

That same Apostle Paul who, as we have seen, wrote about the inevitability of giving an answer before Christ’s Judgement, stood up against fear as an attitude which in substance is inappropriate for Christians, and wrote:

"For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry "Abba! Father!" it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God" (Rom 8:15-16).

These words reflect a different concept of the mutual relationship of God and mankind - no longer juridical or that of a hireling, but a concept of a free love on the basis of our adoption by God. Only when the fulfilment of the commandments is the consequence of a free love, will they no longer be burdensome (1 John 5:3) and instead they will be easy and light (Mt 11:30). Christ the Savior himself, who constantly said "Do not fear" clearly aimed to free the people from fear, emphasizing the commandment of love as the foundation of moral law (Mt 22:35-40), thus moving righteousness away from the sphere of external acts into the sphere of a conscious, internal state, the basis for which is love. If the Christian is "a new creation" (Gal 6:15) born of water and the Spirit (Jn 3:5) then the cry "Abba Father!" can be directed to the beloved God with that confidence that God once and for all loves him in Christ Jesus (1 Jn 4:19) and therefore hears him and responds to that cry just as the father, in the well-known parable, responded to the penitential cry of the prodigal son, (Lk 15), and will always abide in him. That love, according to Apostle John, is incompatible with fear since "there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear" and "he who fears is not perfected in love" (1 Jn 4:18). Thus, even the eschatological perspective of a loving man is totally different from that of a man under the Law. Thus "this is love perfected with us that we may have confidence for the day of judgement because as he is so are we in this world." (v.17) For ultimately "he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him" (1 Jn 4:16).

Apparently, fear before the Law, that curse from which we were redeemed by Christ, is replaced with love (Gal 3:13).

Turning to Patristic sources we find the following in Clement of Alexandria:

"I think that one must approach the Logos Savior, not induced by the fear of punishment and not in the expectation of some kind of a reward, but primarily for the sake of the good in itself. Such will stand on the right in the sanctuary. Those who imagine that by their gift of material goods to the poor they will attain that which is immaterial as in the parable of the two brothers called hirelings."

St John Chrysosdom wrote: "To love Christ -means not to be a hireling, not to look upon a noble life as an enterprise or trade, but to be a true benefactor and to do everything only for the sake of love for God."

It is difficult to find anything more clearer and more concise than the saying of St Anthony the Great: "I no longer fear God but love Him, inasmuch as love dispels fear." Being in communion with God and experiencing genuine love already makes it possible to perceive the state of salvation in this world which, even if it does not achieve the fulness of an encounter "face to face" (1 Cor 12:12) and the possession of all that "what God has prepared for those who love Him" (1 Cor 2:9; cf Is 64:4) nonetheless it can be viewed as a foretaste or a telling beforehand of the eternal joy with God in His Heavenly Kingdom. Even Christ himself, pointing to the time preceding the Kingdom of God said "The Kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed. . .for behold, the Kingdom of God is within you" (Luke 17:20-21).

It can be said that a person who is seized with love for God and for people, will do good as a matter of course, because that love is inseparable and complete. "If anyone says ‘I love God’ and hates his brother, he is a liar" (Jn 4:20). An outward performance of good is as inherent in the one who loves as it is for a sound tree to bear good fruit. The doing of evil is as unnatural for him as it is for a sound tree to produce evil fruit (Mt 7:17-18) . External compulsion, threats and even the promise of reward become irrelevant since the one who loves does good by his internal conviction which cannot be taken away. This is reflected in the words of St Gregory the Theologian: "The one who truly loves his brother. . .loves to do good for the sake of the good itself and not for honors prepared beyond the grave". The Good Samaritan did not think about any future reward when he helped the one who was wounded (Lk 10:30-37). More likely he acted in accordance with the words of God: "I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice" (Hos  6:6). The Old Testament prophets could foresee and could foretell this truly blessed state of the Christian soul when they promised, in God’s name:

"I will put my law within them and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other ‘Know the Lord’ for they shall all know me. . ." (Jer 31:33-34)

The Law here is not diminished in strength and significance. It simply turns from an external law into an internal one, "written in the hearts", becoming immanent and insurmountable for the person with a much greater force than any outward requirements, thus bringing one closer to the good and turning away from evil. One who loves God and man abides in God and "no one who abides in Him sins" (1 John 3:6; cf 4:16).

On the other hand the presence of good testifies to a person’s abiding in God, i.e. in love. The doing of evil, or a depraved egotistical life is a reflection of a lack of love, a distancing from God, of not knowing Him.

". . .no one who sins has either seen him or known him. . .He who does right is righteous as he is righteous. He who commits sin is of the devil, for the devil has sinned from the beginning. . . No one born of God commits sin for God’s nature abides in him and he cannot sin because he is born of God. By this it may be seen who are the children of God and who are the children of the devil: no one who does not do right is of God, nor any one who does not love his brother" (1 Jn 3:6-10)

The state of salvation which we attempted to describe and which in essence is identical with holiness, could appear to be idealistic and even unrealistic. In fact, when we look about, when we look into the depth of history and most of all, when we look deeply into our own spiritual makeup, we become convinced that along with the bright impulses of love in a Christian, there are depraved tendencies which work in opposition to Divine principles. The result is that a Christian’s conduct reflects a variegated mixture of good and evil, of good works and depravity. However, the good is achieved and realized not of itself, but as a result of moral exertions and internal struggles. Here the question arises: how does one achieve a state of such a penetration of love that the way of one’s life would have a predominantly positive character, that the "burden" of salvation would be light and that its bearing would be joyful, and one would be in God and have God within oneself? Thus the second question: Is the achievement of such a state possible?

As for the second question, we can find it in the Gospel. "The Apostles were exceedingly astonished and said to him, ‘Then who can be saved?’ Jesus looked at them and said: With men it is impossible. . .all things are possible with God" (Mk 10:26-27). Thus, the basic and dynamic force in the matter of attaining salvation and, consequently, of holiness, is God Himself. In confirming that truth we come right up against the most complex problem of the relationship between grace, i.e. the granting of God’s will, ". . .who desires all men to be saved" (1 Tim 2:4) and the individual’s personal will and effort. This problem, as is well known, would disturb theological thinking as early as the times of the Pelagian controversy. It was brought to the fore by Augustine’s predestination (revived later by Calvin), and to this day remains a problem for Catholic theology where it would seem that soteriology is more developed and systematized, in arguments between the Thomists and others.

Without going into the substance of the problem we can however, ascertain that for us Christians, the only way for becoming close to God, the only way for a realistic possibility to achieve holiness, that is, the state of salvation, is Christ, who as the only "mediator between God and men" (1 Tim 2:5) is ". . .the way, and the truth, and the life" since "no one comes to the Father, but by me" (Jn 14:6) and "there is no other name under heaven . . by which we must be saved." (Acts 4:12).

In Christ, subjective soteriology closes in with the objective, since the possibility of salvation through Christ is given to us through his incarnation, his earthly life and ministry and his death and resurrection. One can say, in the brilliant symbolic words of St Athanasius of Alexandria, that people could not have achieved heaven if God had not descended from heaven to earth.

However the objective way to salvation accomplished by Christ is not compulsive. Divine Scriptures as well as historical experience shows that not all mankind became Christian and those who did are in the minority. Those who carry Christ’s name are not always worthy of him. It is an obvious fact that many did not accept Christ during the time of his earthly life (Jn 1:11; 66; 11:8; 7:5) and even today his word is questioned, rejected and even scorned. Thus the acceptance of Christ and salvation through him is an individual act and in some respect an exclusive one, since "many were called but few were chosen " (Mt 22:14).

Returning to the previously stated question about how salvation is obtained, we will now state it in a new formulation. How is it possible for a person to acquire the fruits of salvation which were objectively accomplished by Christ? By what means is it possible for an ordinary sinful person to achieve such a state by which he can, together with Apostle Paul, say about himself "it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me" (Gal 2:20)?

The classical formula of "salvation through faith and works" is essentially true since it completely reflects a life in Christ but is methodically unsatisfactory since it separates works from the inner state. It sees them not as the fruit of the spiritual state but as something self-standing. Thus we inevitably arrive at a juridical justification on the basis of good works which we initially rejected as incompatible with the spirit of Christ "for if justification were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose." (Gal 2:21). The reformers of the 16th century, basing themselves to a great degree upon the Blessed Augustine’s Pauline theology, came up with another formula: "salvation through faith alone" (solo fide). It must be admitted that methodically it is more acceptable, since faith is an inner spiritual state characteristic for a Christian and is specifically his own, and to be a Christian without faith is inconceivable. "Without faith it is impossible to please him" we read in Hebrews (11:6). Christ himself said: "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent" (Jn 6:29). We will pause here and talk about faith.

Faith, in the accepted sense, is the conviction in the truth of a fact which has not been verified by the experience of the believer. The classical definition of religious faith is given in the Sacred Scriptures and in the Orthodox Catechism. Thus in the Epistle to Hebrews we read: "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" (Heb 11:1), and the Catechism, in a reflection of this text, understands faith as "a conviction in the unseen as if seen, hoped for and awaited as if in reality".

As seen from these definitions, faith in its pure form (just as is knowledge) was understood as a purely rational psychic phenomenon, not necessarily linked with an emotional and particularly, a volitional activity. As such it once again becomes, as does perceived knowledge, an acceptance of a particular point of information. One can say that such a faith becomes an absolute condition for a Christian life and consequently, for salvation (Heb 11:6). Of itself however, it does not become a determining soteriological factor. In fact, the Apostle James, making a leap over the logical bridge from faith - the psychological foundation of Christian life - to its crowning link - outward works, wrote: "Faith without works is dead" pointing out that even the demons believe and shudder (James 2:19-20).

The Apostle Paul in a detailed elaboration of the Christian teaching about faith likewise doesn’t place faith too highly as a conviction. He wrote: ". . .if I have all knowledge and if I have all faith so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing" (1 Cor 13:2). It is interesting that Luther, as is well known, while basing all of his theology upon the soteriological significance of faith, looked very critically upon faith as a pure conviction. "One who does not do such (good) works is an unbelieving person; he gropes for faith and good works and knows neither the first nor the last; he speaks empty words about faith and good works."

When faith is directed towards a positively and consequently a desirable future, it is transformed into hope which along with faith, lacks an experiential basis. Hope carries an emotional coloration and does have a significant meaning for salvation, since all soteriology has an eschatological direction without which it becomes empty. "For in this hope we were saved" (Rom 8:24), and indeed our salvation in its eschatological-subjective aspect becomes the object of our hope. Only then, when faith has not only an emotional coloration, but assumes an efficacious power, i.e. encompassing the volitional sphere of the person’s psyche, does it become a salvific faith. This takes place when the Christian not only believes, i.e. convincingly construes the reality of particular facts (the existence of God, the acceptance of Christ as one’s Lord and Savior, and other truths of faith), and not only hopes, i.e. is channeled through faith towards a desired future, but loves the object of his faith. It is love which becomes the ferment which gives faith its efficacious power. As we have already seen, love inescapably has an effect on the will, moving it into action. One can say it engenders it and forces it (not externally but internally, organically) to do good works, just as the vital forces common to plants, inevitably result in the formation of flowers and fruit.

Love cannot exist without an object and in the religious sphere it has faith as its indispensable condition. It can be said that the faith which is fecundated and permeated with love, becomes salvific. Its fruit   ". . .is sanctification and its end, eternal life" (Rom 6:22). It is this thought which the Apostle Paul expressed when he wrote about faith working through love (Gal 5:6), as the decisive factor of life in Christ. He had just this faith in mind when, in numerous places of his Epistles, he spoke of salvation by faith.

The Blessed Augustine likewise made a distinction between 1) credere Deo, or credere Christo, as a belief and a conviction which even the devils have, thus making it possible without any prior act of grace and 2) credere in Deum or credere in Christum as a faith which is characterized by the presence of hope and love.. In response to a question: What is ‘credere in Christum" he said:

"Credendo amare, credendo diligere, credendo in eum ire et ejus membris incorporati"; "Ill enim credit in Christum, qui et sperat in Christum et diligit Christum. Nam si fidem habet sine spe ac sine delectione Christum essa credit membrum in corpere ejus efficitur, quod fieri non potest, nisi et spes accedat et charites".

The Apostle Paul stressed the prevailing and the decisive significance of love in the conclusion of the 13th chapter of the First Epistle to the Corinthians, the chapter which can justly be named a "hymn of love": "So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love."

Luther, speaking about salvation by faith, apparently had in mind an efficacious faith, i.e. conjoined with love, when he wrote that faith, "if it is a living, active, strong force " will inevitably engender good works, "and it is impossible for us not to do good works. . .because it is impossible to separate works from faith, just as one cannot separate burning and flashing of light from fire."

However Luther did not sufficiently stressed the role and significance of love, thus the question: What precisely gives efficacy to love? remains unanswered with him and this brought about a great number of ambiguities and misunderstanding. It is known that even in his lifetime, especially at the end of the 16th and in the 17th centuries the theory of the primary importance of the "correct teaching" (die rechte Lehre) received considerable attention. This was whether it was sufficient for salvation that this "correct teaching" had any effect on the life of the Christian or that it remained an ineffective achievement of his intellect.

Thus, shall we characterize the presence of holiness by a living faith as this is found in Protestant theology, or by "faith working through love" (Gal 5:6) according to the Apostle Paul, which gives life to that faith, which is the principle of Orthodox soteriology? In any case that holiness or the state of salvation, is one’s closeness to God, a state of unity with Him and therefore, a foretaste of the future beatitude, a life in God’s Kingdom, which begins here on earth and continues in eternity.

Does such a state presupposes the need to struggle against sin? Or, is a person in such a state capable of sinning?

The Scriptures and society’s experience respond affirmatively to both questions.

As a consequence of the Fall, humanity acquired a biological egoism which was the result of negative formation and the influence of depraved experience. It also brought about (and this is a very substantial fact) the effects of the powers of darkness "the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places" (Eph 6:12) — which even for a saintly person, a true Christian, remains a reality with which he must contend and struggle. It should never be forgotten that the Prodigal Son at first lived in his father’s house and later abandoned it. But it was his older brother, even though he never abandoned his father’s house, but was overwhelmed with jealousy, selfishness and egotism and thus in his spirit, who was closer to the swine than was his younger brother who later freed himself and returned. (Luke 15). "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us" (1 Jn 1:8), writes the Evangelist, and the Apostle Paul, always acknowledging his closeness to God through Christ (1 Cor 12:2-4; Gal 2:20) proclaimed: "For I delight in the law of God, in my innermost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members." (Rom 7:22-23; cf 2 Cor 12:7-10).

However, there is a substantial difference between the sinfulness of the Christian abiding in a wholesome, loving relationship to God and neighbor, and the sinfulness of the person belonging to "the world" in a negative aspect as described by the Evangelist John (1 Jn 2:15-17; Jn 15:18-19). In the first instance the sin is alien to the enlightening nature of the new creation (2 Cor 5:17) born of water and the Spirit (Jn 3:5). Being subject to temptation and falling into sin, the Christian has the same experience as does any healthy organism which becomes infected. All of his efforts are directed towards the struggle with the sinful infection, which he bears painfully by judging himself and by repenting of his sin. Sin inescapably brings about suffering, contrition and repentance. As a result, a cleansing takes place in the ontologically moral aspect and forgiveness in the juridical aspect.

"If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. . .I am writing this to you so than you may not sin; but if any one does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous." (1 Jn 1:9; 2:1) "If we walk in the light, as he is in the light then. . .the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin" (1 Jn 1:7)

There is no question that by "walking in the light" the Evangelist understands this as the very state of abiding in God and with God about which he writes further (1 Jn 4:16) and which we called a state of holiness. Sin, for a person in that state does not lead to death but to repentance, cleansing and forgiveness, and the ontology of this process is based on the objective salvation accomplished by Jesus Christ. The Christian constantly receives "justification" through repentance which consists not only of contrition but in the liquidation of sin and a cleansing from it. It should be noted that we attribute the struggle against sin and all spiritual process to the Christian himself only conditionally. Actually, his membership in the Kingdom of Heaven is attributed to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit within him, that "Spirit of sonship" (Rom 8:15) which acts upon the Christian in such a way that it brings about his unity with Christ and consequently, with the Heavenly Father (Jn 14:6, 10). It is this "Spirit which helps us in our weakness" and "intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words" (Rom 8:26)

"It is the Spirit himself bearing witness to our spirit that we are the children of God" and "any one who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him" (Rom 8:16, 9) Christ dwells within the reborn person, united with him through the power of Divine love, dwelling in him by the action of the Holy Spirit and works in him and through him, against the forces of evil, without overpowering the will, since the Christian, through love, freely yields his spirit and flesh to God as instruments of righteousness. (Rom 6:13)

As if that wasn’t enough. The Christian who is part of the kingdom of God, abiding in his love of God and rejoicing in the experience of His love, becomes an object of a special Divine concern for his salvation. God Himself extends the initiative in the salvation of those belonging to him in the "new creation" and not only acts through that individual by the Holy Spirit, but in the struggle against evil, directs his life by external means, forming him through the conditions and events of his life, not infrequently chastising him with temporary suffering in order to provide for his ultimate salvation. This process finds its best expression in the profound words of the Apostle Paul: "But if we judged ourselves truly, we should not be judged. But when we are judged we are being chastened by the Lord, so that we may not be condemned along with the world." (1 Cor 11:31-32). In other words, if we do not repent, the Lord chastises us, i.e. moves us to change and repent, in order that we may not be condemned, i.e. not become spiritually lost nor forfeit God’s Spirit.

The sinful state of the person who has not been reborn and who does not belong to God’s Kingdom is completely different. For him, the commission of sin does not engender a painful experience (which however does not exclude pangs of conscience - a psychological condition common to mankind which is brought about by the presence of God’s image in a person). For him, sin in a certain sense is a "norm" and thus it does not generate a conflict,a struggle with Christ’s Spirit which is absent in him. Such a person walks in darkness and is not affected by the sin, which has become a part of that darkness to which he is conditioned. The Light, which is alien for him, is just as painful for him as a physical bright light would be for those eyes accustomed to darkness.(cf Jn 3:19-21).

We have now come in earnest to the question stated above: How can an ordinary person achieve such a state of holiness, such a closeness to God, to acquire love in such a degree that it would permeate his whole being, and be completely directed towards doing good and struggling with evil?

Of the two factors which act together and in unity - God’s providential action which points the soul towards the path of salvation, and the private and personal human will, and which integrate a complex psychological process, the first is referred to in theological language as grace, and because of its supernatural state and ontological transcendence, is beyond rational analysis and which is subject to the reception and recognition only through subjective experience. Thus in the objective sense it can only be judged on the basis of consequences. In the matter of the second, personal factor, which is found in the sphere of the psychological functional activity, makes it subject to analysis by the methods of general psychology as well as by personal observation. However, even grace acts upon the person and in the person, in the final analysis, through his consciousness, Therefore the detachment of the action of grace from the purely human psychological process brings about difficulties which are almost insurmountable, which resulted in the above mentioned theological speculations and discussions which continue about the subject to this day but which, because of its sources, belong to the period of the Early Church.

Basing ourselves on the available objective Biblical and historical sources, as well as upon our own Christian consciousness, we must come to the conclusion that the formation of a Christian comes about in different ways and depends as much upon the individual’s subjective particularities as it does upon the action of God’s will for the salvation of a particular human soul, a concept which in its fulness is beyond our understanding. We know of instances of sudden conversions which resulted in an almost instantaneous turnabout of the spiritual structure and in a radical change in mentality. Such were the conversions of the robber on the cross and of Saul on the way to Damascus. Without discounting a definite predisposition we must nonetheless ascertain the action of the gratia irresistibilis. Out of the numerous later examples we can cite the incident with Anthony the Great who, entering a temple, left it a completely different person after hearing just a single Evangelical maxim "He who loves father or mother more than me, is not worthy of me." (Mt 10:37). About an analogous but perhaps a more vivid event of a sudden conversion is the life of the Venerable Mary of Egypt who, coming to Jerusalem as a debauched woman, experienced a miraculous spiritual rebirth at the entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, remaining in Palestine leading a life of repentance and total self-renunciation.

The lives of the majority of martyrs are somewhat different. Living an outwardly normal life but internally a far from usual Christian life, they suddenly, as a result of external circumstances, came upon a situation which called for a great decision and they accepted that decision ascending to the ultimate spiritual experience, giving up their lives for their Lord. This for them was a great challenge, a test of their personal options and at the same time a moment of exceptional abundance of supportive and inspiring grace.

However for the majority of Christians the path for union with their Lord and Savior is different, a more lengthy and one can say a more prosaic one. Having been placed by God into an environment of a Christian family upbringing or a beneficial influence of a churchly milieu (sometimes of one or another Christian personage), but remaining in a constant contact with the world with all its temptations and passions (1 Jn 2:16), they experience all the burdens of a difficult and narrow path (Mt 7:14) carrying out a constant struggle with external and internal temptations. Gradually, with occasional successes, victories as well as fall-backs and defeats, with the help of Divine grace a "new creation" crystallizes within them. Perhaps in the process of life’s experience they may come to the realization that "the world passes away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever" (1 Jn 2:17).

Being aware of the inevitability and the difficulty of that struggle, knowing that the "more excellent way" (1Cor 12:31) is not attained and is not gained all by itself, the Apostle Paul wrote to the Churches he founded those insistent moral exhortations which make up the concluding parts of almost all his epistles.

Although there may be examples of such "paths to salvation" among Christians of all ages and nations, including those surrounding us at the present time, I dare to say however that what can serve as the most vivid, convincing and best known examples are the closest followers of Christ, whose love for their Teacher and Lord grew under conditions of a constant influence on his part. However it was not free from disruptions, manifestations of little faith, faint-heartedness, selfishness and weakness. The Gospels give vivid examples of these. Yet even after the special enlightenment by the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, giving them a super-human charismatic gift, they not infrequently exhibited a very human behavior towards each other, leading to sad misunderstanding and chagrin (Gal 2:11-15; Acts 15:2, 36-40; 2 Peter 3:15-16).

Experience has a considerable role in the formation and shaping of a Christian. It is obvious that purely free acts need less effort to carry out after constant repetition which, in the end, can bring about a kind of automation. This psychological finding lies at the base of all formation, whether family, social or religious. Positive behavior, even at first in the order of external compulsion, eventually becomes "second nature" for a person and has a positive spiritual effect in the formation of his psyche and mindset in a positive direction.

Here we are coming to an answer to the question which we deliberately avoided in the beginning of our article. We are convinced that the Holy Scriptures as well as the works of the Church Fathers, show insistently that love is the only worthy stimulus for a Christian. However they also point to the inevitability of the eschatological retribution which has a universal character, in the aspects of rewards for good and punishment for evil. How can we reconcile these seemingly mutually exclusive tendencies?

It appears that the answer must be found in the indisputable position in principle that good is always good, no matter what its motive may be. Actually, if a person is given help then that help for him objectively has a meaning independent of the reason by which the helper is motivated. The action of the helping subject is judged differently since the moral worth of his act and consequently, the subject’s internal state, substantially depends on whether he acts out of personal interest, even if an eschatological one, or whether he is motivated by an inner feeling, in other words, by love towards the object of his action. The Word of God is directed both to the subject and to the object of his love. Having in mind the spiritual growth and salvation of the first, it shows him "the more excellent way", showing the objective meaning of good for those to whom it is rendered, or promising eternal punishment for egotistical passivity (Mt 25:41-46) or active evil (Lk 13:1-9; Rev 21:8) to those who in the face of rendered good, are still incapable of rising to the level of filial relationship with God, or beyond an expectation of a reward for every good work.

Thus the performance of good works and restraint from evil even out of fear of eternal punishment, or with the am of attaining eternal bliss, attains for the Christian the experience of good work which becomes habitual for him, turning it into his "second nature" and, when he actually experiences the joy of walking along Christ’s narrow way he begins to love that way, to love good for the sake of good, and then Christ’s burden becomes light for him and the yoke easy (Mt 11:30). Just like a child who at first is trained towards good behavior by the fear of punishment and a promise of reward, the need for threats and promises falls away and the child learns to behave well on his own initiative and finds satisfaction in it.

All this was clearly acknowledged by many of the Church’s fathers and teachers. Thus St Gregory the Theologian wrote:

"If you are a slave, fear beatings; if you are a hireling, bear one thing in mind: to receive recompense. If you are standing above the slave and hireling, even if you are the son - fear God like the Father; do good because of obedience to the Father. Even though you do not hope to receive anything. To please the Father is a reward in itself"

It appears that there are three categories of the spiritual state but between them there is a real correlation, furthermore, there is a contingent of spiritual development. "The rule, that the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord," writes the same Father, "is like a first shroud. Wisdom is the overcoming of fear, turning into love, making us God’s friends, and out of slaves - sons"

Even the Prodigal Son who forfeited his sonship, hoped only to become a hireling, but received back his sonship once again (Lk 15:19).

 


 

This article, which I had the honor to bring to your attention, carries a particularly theological character. However, I dare to express my confidence that every Christian will agree with the themes expressed in the beginning of this report. To be sure, the problem of salvation has, for a Christian, both an objectively theological as well as a subjectively moral actuality. In the subjective sense it can be expressed in somewhat lesser formulations which in no way diminishes its resolution.

The Russian Emperor Peter I, during his travels in Germany in the beginning of the 18th Century, walked into a Lutheran church. The pastor was informed that the emperor does not like long sermons. Entering the chancel the pastor said the following: "Love good, strive towards the good and do good. Amen". The emperor liked the sermon. I believe that if we remember that the Highest Good is our Heavenly Father, that we can only love him and go to him through the Son of God our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and we can only do good through the Holy Spirit, then the pastor’s sermon, having the appearance of brevity, in essence encompassed all the practical conclusions which can be drawn from this report.


 

 

Archbishop Mikhail (Mudyugin)
Translated by Alvian N. Smirensky

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