Just Showing Up and the Work of Grace

There has been a tendency in much teaching about the notion of salvation by grace to ground the image in a legal or forensic metaphor. Thus, we are saved by grace in the sense that someone else’s goodwill and kindness (God’s) has now freed us from the consequences of our actions. Thus we speak of grace as the “free gift” of God.

There is no denying that grace is a free gift and that it is the true means of our salvation. But what if our problem is not to be primarily understood in legal terms? What if that which needs saving about us is not our guilt before the law of God, but the ravages worked within our heart and life from the presence of sin and death? This is probably the point where many discussions about salvation fall apart. If one person has in mind primarily a forensic salvation (I go to heaven, I don’t go to hell), while the other is thinking primarily in terms of an ontological change (I am corrupted and dying and were I to go to heaven I’d still be corrupted and dying). The debate comes down to a question of whether we need a change of status (forensic) or a change within our very heart. Of course, there are varying shades within this debate and I have surely not done justice to the full understanding of either point.

Orthodox theology, has largely been nurtured in the understanding of salvation as a healing of our heart and a transformation of the whole of our life. Others have sometimes referred to these elements as belonging to “sanctification,” but there has never been a distinction between sanctification and justification or salvation within the Eastern Tradition.

It is from within that understanding that my comments on grace are shaped. It is difficult for Christians of any sort in our modern world to grasp what it means to be saved by grace, if grace is indeed the very life of God given to us to transform and transfigure us – to change us into conformity with the image of Christ (Roman 8:29). The difficulty with this understanding is that, unlike a change in status, a transformation is slow work. We do not live in a culture that is particularly patient about anything. The political world thrives on repeated campaigns for “change,” though change is always a relatively slow thing (except in revolutions when it is usually not a change for the better).

There is a saying from the desert fathers: “Stay in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” It is a recognition thatstability is an inherent virtue in the spiritual life, and in the constancy and patience of our prayers and labors with God, grace has its perfect work.

In the modern parish setting, particularly with my catechumens, I have translated the desert saying into a more modern statement: “Ninety percent of Orthodoxy is just showing up.” We do not live in cells nor is our stability marked by sitting quiety through the day reciting the Jesus Prayer. There certainly should be times of the day set aside for prayer – but one of the primary locations of our life of grace – as Christians living in the world – is to be found within the life of the parish Church – particularly within its life of sacraments, prayers, and patience (there is equally as much patience to be practiced in the parish as in any monastery). One mark of our struggle for stability is “just showing up.” Fr. Thomas Hopko quotes his mother’s advice to him as a young man: “Go to Church. Say your prayers. Remember God.”

The life of grace is central to our existence as Christians and must not become secularized. In a secular understanding, the Church has a role to play in a larger scheme of things (the secular world). Thus the Church becomes useful to me and at the same time takes on a diminished role in my life and in the culture of my life. Secularism is the dominant form of American culture. It is not hostile to Church attendance – but sees it as having a diminished importance. Church becomes just one of many programs in which we may be involved. In some families, choices are made between a child’s participation in a Sunday soccer league and a child’s participation in Church. Adults make similar choices for themselves. But the transformation that is occurring in such choices is the transformation of the Church and the gift of God’s life (grace) into a secular program which exists to meet my religious needs or interests. Such an approach is a contradiction of the life of grace.

Our submission to the salvation of Christ is a submission of our life to the life of grace – a recognition that there is no salvation apart from Christ and the life of grace. In cultural terms, it means a renunciation of the secular life – a life defined by my needs as a consumer within the American experience – and an acceptance of my life as defined by the Cross of Christ. If the Cross is to be taken up with integrity – it must be taken up daily and more often still than that.

The life of grace means that I have given myself to Christ and to the means He has provided for my salvation. I will confess my sins and embrace the life of repentance. I will approach the Cup of His Body and Blood with faith and with trust in His promise of Life. I will be patient as I await His coming to me – as forgiveness – as healing – as transformation from the death of Adam into the Life of Christ. All of which requires that we “show up” – not in the casual sense of the term – but in the sense that we truly struggle to make ourselves available to God.

How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? (Hebrews 2:3)

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22 Responses to “Just Showing Up and the Work of Grace”

  1. Jamie Says:

    Thank you so much for this post Father Stephen.

  2. Micah Says:

    Our submission to the salvation of Christ is a submission of our life to the life of grace – a recognition that there is no salvation apart from Christ and the life of grace.

    Recognition. Another word that has gone thoroughly amiss in modernity.

    Once again, thank you for this post Father Stephen.

  3. Fr Alvin Kimel Says:

    Excellent article, Father. Thank you. I particularly liked the second paragraph:

    “There is no denying that grace is a free gift and that it is the true means of our salvation. But what if our problem is not to be primarily understood in legal terms? What if that which needs saving about us is not our guilt before the law of God, but the ravages worked within our heart and life from the presence of sin and death? … If one person has in mind primarily a forensic salvation (I go to heaven, I don’t go to hell), while the other is thinking primarily in terms of an ontological change (I am corrupted and dying and were I to go to heaven I’d still be corrupted and dying). The debate comes down to a question of whether we need a change of status (forensic) or a change within our very heart.”

    As you know, I have wrestled with the question of justification for decades. I am now persuaded that the key concern for Luther and the Reformers is justification. Forensic justification is designed, I believe, to address the problem of the tormented conscience that cannot find peace when confronted by an omnipotent God whose intentions toward us are questionable or unfathomable. If one’s ultimate concern is “How do I find a gracious God?” then forensic justification provides an answer–perhaps not a biblical or patristic answer but an answer, nonetheless: I am justified because God says so. Period.

    Yet as you observe, Father, our real problem is not persuading God to love us. That is a given–at least it is a given in the Eastern tradition. Our real problem is us! As you write, “I am corrupted and dying and were I to go to heaven I’d still be corrupted and dying.” I don’t need to be legally justified. I need to be saved!

    I was thinking about this last week. I posed this question to myself: “Al, if you had to choose between assurance of eternal salvation and salvation itself (i.e., actual transformation in the Spirit), which one would you choose?” The latter, of course, I answered. I want to be healed, even if it means that here in the present I cannot have absolute certainty of my eternal destiny. And why is absolute certainty impossible? Because I cannot guarantee my own faith in and love of God. In practical reality all I can do is cry out to God, “Love, have mercy,” in confidence that he is indeed merciful to all who ask for his mercy. And therein is my hope–not absolute certainty … but genuine hope.

  4. Theo1973 Says:

    I think the word submit has come to have negative connotations. It is a sign of the growth in human pride that we do not like to submit. It is wonderful and joyful to submit to another, to do the will of another. I think that is how we have to see Orthodoxy.

  5. Allison Salerno Says:

    What a beautiful reflection. Thank you for this.

  6. fatherstephen Says:

    Fr. Al,
    Thank you, indeed. Our hope – quite a Biblical word – whereas certainty is generally born of our anxiety – of which I am all too familiar.

  7. readerjohn Says:

    “Ontological change” wasn’t the first thing that grabbed hold of my attention when I first encountered Orthodoxy 13 years or so ago, but it has been one of the most enduring reasons why I’ve never looked back wistfully at Calvinism.
    In fact, for whatever it’s worth (which may be very little), my experience was a sudden realization that I had been falsely imputing a very grudging attitude to God when it came to forgiveness, and had been heeding scarcely at all the possibility that what really threatened to deprive me of heaven was my lack of real repentance. All the repentance I cared to must was such as would induce God to forgive my willful and habitual sins. C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce has moved to the top of my favorites list, as I try to become the sort of person who wouldn’t get back on the bus to hell because heaven was “so not about me.”

  8. Mere forgiveness or real change? « Tipsy Teetotaler Says:

    […] This one captured eloquently a big factor in my embrace of Orthodoxy: salvation as ontological change more than forensic transaction. There is no denying that grace is a free gift and that it is the true means of our salvation. But what if our problem is not to be primarily understood in legal terms? What if that which needs saving about us is not our guilt before the law of God, but the ravages worked within our heart and life from the presence of sin and death? This is probably the point where many discussions about salvation fall apart. If one person has in mind primarily a forensic salvation (I go to heaven, I don’t go to hell), while the other is thinking primarily in terms of an ontological change (I am corrupted and dying and were I to go to heaven I’d still be corrupted and dying). The debate comes down to a question of whether we need a change of status (forensic) or a change within our very heart. […]

  9. MichaelPatrick Says:

    Fr. Kimel, I appreciate your comments and your personal “questions.”

  10. Yudikris Says:

    “The life of grace means that I have given myself to Christ and to the means He has provided for my salvation. I will confess my sins and embrace the life of repentance. I will approach the Cup of His Body and Blood with faith and with trust in His promise of Life. I will be patient as I await His coming to me – as forgiveness – as healing – as transformation from the death of Adam into the Life of Christ. All of which requires that we “show up” – not in the casual sense of the term – but in the sense that we truly struggle to make ourselves available to God”. Amen!

    Thanks Father Stephen!

  11. Pandelis Says:

    “Orthodox theology has largely been nurtured in the understanding of salvation as a healing of our heart and a transformation of the whole of our life.”

    The problem with many of us Orthodox Christians is that sometimes we simply miss this point. We don’t hear God knocking at the door of our heart because we are too preoccupied with trying to understand theological concepts with our minds rather than allowing God to penetrate our hearts.

    Thank you Fr Stephen. Your words are always a beacon of light.

  12. Peter Says:

    Please send me emails of new posts. Thank you Father.

  13. coffeezombie Says:

    readerjohn: The Great Divorce was, perhaps, one of the scariest books I’ve ever read.

    “…as I try to become the sort of person who wouldn’t get back on the bus to hell because heaven was “so not about me.””

    Perhaps another way to phrase it would be, “Will I glorify God with my whole being, in communion with all the Saints, or will I be looking around thinking, ‘Where’s *my* place?'”

  14. Merry O'Callahan-Bauman Says:

    Thank you – again Fr. Stephen. Michael sent me this link in an email this morning, because I had spent most of the night awake – struggling with some of the forgiveness issues that are the hardest for me. This was the perfect “boost” to help me understand and accept what it is best for me to do – to be the person that God is trying to help me become. Looking forward to my first communion at Pascha! I am trying to find a way to forgive all those whom I really need to forgive – both past and present – to be able to give a good confession and be prepared for that communion and the beginning of my life in the Orthodox faith. It has felt like most of my life I was swimming in the “shallow end of the pool” of faith. Still swimming of course, but the Orthodox faith is so totally immersing and full of so many things I have not experienced before. Now I am in the “deep end of the pool”, surrounded by so many wonderful and transforming facets of the faith. I am blessed to have a very loving Orthodox husband, with the patience and understanding to guide me thru the things I struggle with. A Bishop who is a delight and a continual font of wisdom, and a Priest who has watched my transformation from an angry lioness – furious at what I felt was a gross injustice to me – to a peaceful little lamb – content and protected – by the shepherd chosen by God for our flock. Fr. Paul O’Callaghan. I am blessed by his guidance and grateful for his forgiveness.

  15. Rick Doughty Says:

    Thanks, Steve. I am prone to believe the forensic and ontological views are both true. But at any rate, my experience is that folks on the forensic side get older and don’t change. That’s bothersome to me. Stresses in my later life have forced me to pursue the Life of Christ rather than a theology about Him. Thanks again.

  16. Michael Bauman Says:

    Not only does the forensic vs transformation dicotomy impact my own approach to salvation, but my ability, even willingness to forgive others.

    Under a forensic approach, it is quite easy for me to ask God to forgive a whole long list of sins of this other person yet never have an ounce of real forgiveness in my own heart and mind.

    From the Cross in the midst of His suffering Jesus asked the Father to forgive because “they know not what they do”.

    Forensically it is quite easy to say that someone must know the pain they inflict on others.

    Onologically and transformationally, we usually have no clue what we are doing to ourselves by continuing in our sins. It is those deep and hidden wounds that Jesus heals so that we are able to even approach loving one another. I must also pray that my enemy also be healed of his deep and hidden wounds because it is the combination of my wounds and his that make us enemies.

  17. fatherstephen Says:

    Rick,
    What the forensic model asks me to believe about God and what it asks me to believe about the nature of the human predicament make it impossible for me to accept – either in light of Scripture or the Tradition. If it is true – it would only be as a metaphor used to illustrate a point – but then has the weakness of implying much that I think is simply not true.

  18. Arnold Says:

    Would Aulen’s description of the “classic” view of atonement in Christus Victor be close to the Orthodox view?

  19. fatherstephen Says:

    Arnold, it is part of that view, with the exception that Aulen does not describe the very important since of koinonia or participation. Christ has become what we are, thus all that He does, and all that He endures and conquers, is made ours through our participation in His very life. Thus “as many as are Baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” And “As many as are Baptized into Christ are Baptized into his death, that we may also be raised in the likeness of His resurrection” (roughly quoted from Romans 6). (I’m writing on my back in bed today.) The great over-arching metaphor (and reality) in Orthodox theology is union with God through Christ. All that God does for us is done through union with Him and His union with us and all that we hope for is found in that union. His life becomes our life. It is the true meaning of both life and love.

    May God bless you my dear brother!

  20. Micah Says:

    Wonderful. May God speed your recovery Father Stephen!

  21. Fr. Stephen On Grace and Salvation « Orthodox Harlemite Says:

    […] their respective order, they are Just Showing Up and the Work of Grace, and The Nature of Things and Our […]

  22. Lighting our Lamps to Become Lamps for Others « 30 Days Says:

    […] Orthodox priest Fr. Stephen Freeman recently commented that 90% of Orthodox spiritual life consists in showing up. It is not as if there is some sort of special effort required by each of us to regain our spark […]

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