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)