The other day in Sunday school, as I was discussing a phrase that the early Fathers often spoke—”There is no salvation outside the Church”—and also spoke about the need to strive for righteousness so we can be ready on judgment day, someone asked: “What is the role of the blood of Jesus in all of this?” “Where is grace?”
“It goes without saying,” I said, “that grace of Christ’s death and redeeming blood is the foundation of salvation.”
But they challenged that assumption and responded: “In the Orthodox Church, it is not spoken of enough.” Is that a fair statement, do you think?
As I was preparing this post, a friend of mine reached out to me because he was challenged with the same type of concern brought forward by some Orthodox Christians, that somehow the Orthodox Church is undermining grace when we emphasize the fact that “works” (being righteous) is necessary for salvation.
I think these questions and challenges often stem from the extent to which Evangelicals and other similar non-Orthodox Christian denominations emphasize “nothing but the blood of Jesus” (as the song goes) and “justification by faith in Christ” as being all that is needed to reach heaven, while excluding the need for the Church and righteousness, although Scriptures teach otherwise. And so, when we Orthodox are continually exposed to this message with such a singular focus on the issue of salvation, many are persuaded that maybe they are right: we are justified to enter heaven by faith in Christ, and that’s all we need.
So here is the question: does the Orthodox Church give too little emphasis on the redeeming blood of Jesus and God’s grace?
Let me turn to the most fundamental book I’ve ever read on this subject, written by His Holiness, the late Pope Shenouda III: “Salvation in the Orthodox Concept” (I cannot recommend this book enough). After he explained the danger of relying on just one or a few verses (while neglecting the rest of Scripture) in expressing a theological standpoint, he begins his discussion on salvation quite simply stating:
“There can be no salvation except through the blood of Christ. No good works, however excellent, elevated or perfect they may be, can save man without the blood of Christ.”
This is absolutely true, and absolutely the position of the Orthodox Church and of Christianity historically. End of story right? No.
There is no doubt in the above statement. However, what is often lost among many non-Orthodox is the total picture of salvation as described in Scripture. While the term “salvation” means different things, let’s get to the core of what God was saving us from; let’s reset for a moment:
Before Christ, where did all people who died, even the good ones, go? Almost always the answer I get from the non-Orthodox is, “I don’t know,” or “heaven,” especially when I ask them where good people like David, Isaiah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob went. If your answer is “heaven,” then the fundamental story of salvation is missing. It should be basic knowledge for Christians that Paradise/heaven was closed to us before Christ, and what Christ’s death and resurrection did for us was to open the door of Paradise/heaven once more.
Christ fixed all of that, not because we deserved it, but out of his love (which is why we call it “grace”), and while we were not justified beforehand to enter heaven, now we have …
“boldness and access with confidence through faith in Him” (Eph 3:12) “to enter the Holiest [i.e., heaven] by the blood of Jesus” (Heb 10:19).”
So you see, that is “justification by faith” in a simplified manner. All the verses in Scripture that say we are not justified by “works of the law” refer to the fact that in the Old Testament, before Christ, the law of Moses and our own righteousness was not sufficient to fix the separation between man and God, and was not enough to open heaven once more. Many non-Orthodox denominations extend such verses to meaning no works of righteousness are necessary to stay saved after becoming a Christian. “Once saved, always saved.”
However, it is undeniable that Scripture and the first Christians, and their successors to the present, teach otherwise. Although the doors to heaven have been opened to us by Christ’s blood which justified us by His grace, we still have to walk in. His Holiness Pope Shenouda paints the rest of the picture, summing up for us what Scripture teaches:
“The blood of Christ is available, ready to save and capable of that … but there are certain conditions that must be fulfilled first.”
If you say to me, Christ justified all of mankind, so how dare proclaim limitations on Christ’s grace? Well, then I will ask you, is it that all of mankind will enter heaven? Many will say, “No, just those who have faith in Christ.” So then there is agreement: the justification by grace through Christ has certain conditions that must be met. For some, they have limited those conditions to just faith in Christ.
But faith is not the only condition. Scripture makes it clear what the other parameters are which are needed to obtain the benefit of Christ’s saving grace.
And no, these are not “technicalities” that the Church has laid down (as someone who left the Orthodox church once told me), but these are undeniable Scriptural principles given to us by Christ and carried forward by the apostles and their bona fide, carefully-selected successors. And here are those conditions:
- Faith (Jn 3:16; 8:24; 20:31; Acts 13:38, 39… and much more),
- Mysteries (baptism [John 3], confession and repentance [John 20:22-23], and partaking of the body and blood of Christ [John 6])
- note: The Mysteries require the action of the Holy Spirit, conferred by a legitimate successor of the apostles (i.e., a bishop, or a priest delegated by the bishop) authorized to invoke the Holy Spirit (see Acts 8; 20:28); this is why you need the Church (this is BASIC Christianity, undermined only in the last few hundred years due to the Protestant Reformation, but believed to be the case since the earliest of times and is evident in Scripture, and continues to be what is taught in the Orthodox Church from the beginning of Christendom to the present time).
- Righteousness (aka “Works”) (as St. Paul said to the Christians in Corinth: “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God?—1 Corinthians 6:9).
To become a member of Christ’s body and inherit heaven, one must have faith and be baptized (and receive the Holy Spirit), and partake of the life-giving body and blood of Jesus. By this the new Christian has been justified by faith in Christ and has access to heaven.
However, Christians who are saved can lose that access. The pursuit of righteousness and holiness is required. But in this pursuit we are not left alone. As we pursue a life that comports with God’s commandments, God’s grace aids us; and when we fall in sin from time to time, we have access to God’s grace so that if we confess our sins and partake of His body and blood, we receive forgiveness and the remission of sins, freely by His grace.
Having been justified by God’s grace through faith in Christ, the Church tends to focus more, in my opinion, on warning its flock not to “fall short of the grace of God,” as we pursue holiness, as St Paul taught Hebrew Christian converts:
Pursue . . . holiness, without which no one will see the Lord: looking carefully lest anyone fall short of the grace of God. . . . Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear. For our God is a consuming fire” (Heb 12:14–15, 28–29). (See also 1 Peter 1:17-19)
GRACE VS. STRIVING | GRACE DEFINITION
Unfortunately, the concept of “grace” has been confused to mean that we are excused from the requirement of being holy and righteous, and thus the need to strive to do “good works” is considered irrelevant to salvation.
(1) CORRECT STATEMENT: Heaven was opened once more, by God’s grace.
(2) INCORRECT STATEMENT: I don’t need to worry about pursuing a righteous life, because I cannot lose salvation, since Christ’s grace will excuse me regardless. Scripture makes clear, we must pursue righteousness in order not to fall short of the grace of God’s opening the door of heaven. We must pursue holiness. This pursuit is often called “strife” or “striving” in the Orthodox Church.
If grace covers the need to be righteous, and excuses the requirement to strive, then the Bible would teach Christians the following:
- Be holy, but if you do not pursue it, it is okay because you don’t have to worry about falling short of God’s grace, which will always be there to completely cover you.
- Even if you are unrighteous, if you have faith in God, His grace will cover you and justify you. Eternal life is yours, even if you are not righteous, because God is righteous and justifies you.
- If we sin willfully, God’s grace is sufficient to cover you, so do not worry; you do not have to fear punishment.
- If as a Christian you sin, you are still a child of God and you still know Him who will by grace save you.
- If you are Christian, when you die and appear before God and call upon His name, He will justify you and allow you to enter, no matter what you did or did not do in life.
Scripture actually says something very different, and in each of these cases the writer was speaking to or about Christians:
- Pursue . . . holiness, without which no one will see the Lord: looking carefully lest anyone fall short of the grace of God” (Heb 12:14–15)
- Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. (1 Corinthians 6:9).
- If we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins [i.e., the justification by grace, which opened heaven’s doors], but a certain fearful expectation of judgment…. [having] counted the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a common thing and insulted the Spirit of grace. (Hebrews 10:26-27, 29).
- Whoever abides in Him does not sin. Whoever sins has neither seen Him nor known Him. Let no one deceive you. He who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous. He who sins is of the devil… For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil. In this the children of God and the children of the devil are manifest: Whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God. (1 John 3:4-10).
- On that day many will call out to me “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy and cast out demons in your name?” And then I will declare to them: “I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.” (Matthew 7:21-23).
All of these passages make very clear: yes, Christ justified us by His grace so that the door of heaven is open to us so that we may be justified to enter again; but to be a true “heir” (Gal. 4) of God’s heavenly kingdom and a true child of the Father, Scripture teaches us,
“As obedient children, … as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, “Be holy, for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:14-16).
Again, none of what I’ve stated above denies the fact that God provides us “assisting grace” (as St. Augustine once called it) so that as we pursue holiness, we are aided by God’s help and comfort. We also must recognize that God’s grace in excusing our sins is available to us now in the form of repentance and confession, and partaking of the life-giving body and blood of Jesus, whereby we receive forgiveness of our sins.
“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9)
And still, after we die, we can still we appeal to God’s mercy so that He may overlook our weaknesses which we have not repented for, as St. Paul prayed for the departed Onesiphorus:
“The Lord grant to him that he may find mercy from the Lord in that Day” (2 Timothy 1:18)
EARLY CHRISTIANS CLEARLY TEACH THOSE WHO ARE SAVED CAN BE LOST
St. Clement of Rome, a very early Christian and head bishop of Rome (died AD 101), in his letter to the Corinthians, wrote about justification through Christ, and then continued about the importance of striving for holiness:
[Although the] Almighty God has justified all men …. what shall we do, then, brethren? Shall we become slothful in well-doing, ….? God forbid that any such course should be followed by us! But rather let us hasten with all energy and readiness of mind to perform every good work.
* * *
Take heed, beloved, lest His many kindnesses lead to the condemnation of us all. [For thus it must be] unless we walk worthy of Him, and with one mind do those things which are good and well-pleasing in His sight.3
The list of early Christians who taught the same message is extensive and well documented. Here are just a few more examples:
“We should fear ourselves, lest … after [we have come to] the knowledge of Christ, if we do things displeasing to God we obtain no further forgiveness of sins, but are shut out from His kingdom.”—Irenaeus (c. AD 180)
“He who hopes for everlasting rest knows also that the entrance to it is toilsome and narrow… God gives forgiveness of past sins. However, as to future sins, each one procures this for himself. He does this by repenting, by condemning hte post deeds, and by begging the Father to blot them out…. Even in the case of one who has done the greatest good deeds in his life, but at the end has run headlong into wickedness, all this former pains are profitless to him.”—Clement of Alexandria (c. AD 195)
“No one is a Christian but he who perseveres to the end…. The world returned to sin … and so it is destined to fire. So is the man who after baptism renews his sins.”—Tertullian (c. AD 198)
[It is heretical to to teach about] “being saved in such a way that they cannot be lost.”—Origen (c. AD 225).
“You are still in the world. You are still in the battlefield. You daily fight for your lives. So you must be careful that … what you have begun … will be consummated in you. It is a small thing to have first received something. It is a greater thing to be able to keep what you have attained. Faith itself and the saving birth do not make alive by merely being received. Rather, they must be preserved. It is not the actual attainment, but the perfecting, that keeps a man for God…. [As with Solomon, Saul, etc.] when the discipline of the Lord was forsaken by them, grace also forsook them.”—Cyprian of Carthage (c. AD 250).
“He who sins after his baptism, unless he repents and forsakes his sins, will be condemned to Gehenna.”—Apostolic Constitutions (compiled c. AD 390).
The Church may focus much of its attention on righteousness and pursuing holiness. But this is a worthy pursuit. The Church wants to keep the saved saved, return the lost to salvation, and bring those who have not known the grace of Christ into His loving embrace.
PHOTO ABOVE is one I took of a crucifix in a church in Paris, as well as a picture taken of an old chalice displayed in the Coptic museum in Egypt transposed on top. Use as you wish.
FURTHER READING SUGGESTION: Great article by the Greek Orthodox on this subject: https://www.goarch.org/-/how-are-we-saved-
If interested in more,
SOME FURTHER DISCUSSION
Before Christ, humanity was not justified to enter heaven, no matter how good anyone was. Christ justified us in front of the Father so now we have “boldness” and “access” “to enter the Holiest [i.e., heaven] by the blood of Jesus,” being “justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” (Ephesians 3:12, Hebrews 10:19; Romans 3:24). The Bible often speaks of the futility of “works of the law” to justify us, but Scripture is not saying “good works/righteousness” is not needed. Rather, Scripture is saying no person and no amount of good works or following the law of Moses can undo the condition that befell mankind since the time of Adam, whereby Paradise was closed to all of humanity and access to eternal life in God’s kingdom was longer available to us. Scripture is saying that the only way heaven was opened to us once more was by Christ’s redeeming sacrifice. All Christians agree on this point. But one can lose access to salvation. “Faith without works is dead” (James 2:20).
THE CHURCH: LIVING THE MESSAGE, NOT JUST PROCLAIMING IT
Even if you are convinced the Orthodox Church does not mention the importance of the grace given to us by Christ’s redeeming blood as often as we should (the jury is still out on that one), the Church focuses on living it, because it is through the Church by which we partake of the benefit of Christ’s redeeming blood. In fact, it is the “Church of God” which Scripture tells us was “purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28).
In Baptism we are united with the shedding of Christ’s blood, having been “united together in the likeness of His death” so that “we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection” (Romans 6:4-5).
Every time we come to the Liturgy, after reciting the story of salvation, from being cast out of Paradise, to Christ’s birth, death, and resurrection so that we may return to Paradise once more, we behold that same blood of Jesus on the altar; and it’s not just there as a memorial, but by the mysterious descent of the Holy Spirit it is His actual blood cloaked in the form of wine: “For … My blood is drink indeed” (John 6:55), given for “eternal life” (John 6:54) and the “remission of sins” (Matthew 26:28). (Note that this is something that many of the non-Orthodox who focus so emphatically on the importance of the blood of Jesus ironically deny, but was a belief held and practiced by virtually all Christians for about 1500 years until the Protestant Reformation [Interestingly, even the reformer Martin Luther believed the partaking of body and blood was to be retained as a belief among the reformed]).
Out of the utmost respect for the preciousness of Christ’s blood, and in keeping with the Biblical command, before partaking of communion, the Orthodox are reminded that we must worthily partake of Christ’s body and blood, because “whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 11:27). And so you hear the priest in the Coptic liturgy announce: “The Holies [the body of blood of Jesus] for the holy [those who are taking communion in a repentant manner].” If the bread and wine which St. Paul was speaking of in 1 Corinthians was simply bread and wine, and not the actual body and blood of Jesus, why does it matter how worthily you partake of it? He even said some people would get sick or even die because of not partaking of the body and blood of Christ with discernment (1 Corinthians 11:29-30).
After we leave church we are reminded that, having received the remission of sins by His precious blood, we must be careful not to sin willfully, “For if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins” but rather by living an unrighteous life we will have “counted the blood of the covenant by which [we were] sanctified a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace” (Hebrews 10:26, 29).
So, in the end, even if we don’t talk about the justification we receive through the blood of Jesus as often as some would prefer, we constantly live its significance in the life of the Church.
We are justified by grace, and receive the benefits of this justification by becoming a member of His body through baptism and chrismation, receive forgiveness of our sins through worthily partaking of His body and blood, and are called upon not to throw away this gift of grace by turning our backs on Christ and living a life that is displeasing to Him. This is Scriptural, and historically evidenced proof of what the early Church believed and practiced, from the time of the apostles to the present time in the Orthodox Church.