Salvation in the teaching of the Holy Apostle Paul
Why do we come to church? Why do we try to live a good and moral life? Why do we try to fast and pray? Why are we to always try to love those around us? These are all very important questions. Perhaps they might seem like simple questions. Yet, they are questions that every person who calls him- or herself a Christian should ask. As Orthodox Christians, all of these questions—and every truly important question in life—can be answered in one word: Salvation. For us, salvation is the ultimate goal of life. It is the very point of our existence. Without salvation, everything that we do, every word and thought that we have, anything that we might accomplish, any love that we might share in this world…without salvation, all of these things are meaningless.
Death is inevitable—we will all die. The Good News is that our loving God wants to save each and every one of us (1 Tim 2:3-6). And, yet, if God does not save us from death, or, rather, if we do not choose to accept the eternal life that He offers to us, then everything that we do and all that we are has no lasting meaning. So, if we believe that salvation is the answer…if it is truly the purpose of our lives as Christians…then we must ask ourselves another seemingly simple question…What is salvation?
In the New Testament Gospels—which are the eyewitness accounts of the life and teachings of Christ—we find our answer. Salvation is Jesus Christ. Jesus tells His followers, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). It is through Christ alone that we can enter into a relationship with our Heavenly Father (John 14:7). And it is this relationship with God that is the true source and the deepest desire of our life. As our Lord Himself says, “This is eternal life, that they know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ Whom thou hast sent” (John 17:3).
So, we may ask ourselves, why was Christ sent and from what does He save us? In Romans 3:23, St. Paul writes, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” From near the very beginning of human history, we have lived in a broken relationship with God…a relationship broken of our own doing. St. Paul explains that “sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned” (Rom 5:12). Sin and death came into the good and perfect world that God had originally created. This happened because Adam, the father of all humanity, chose disobedience rather than communion with God. As Orthodox Christians, we believe that Adam’s sin—his choice to rebel against God—brought about a weakening of the human nature that God had originally created. As St. Cyril of Alexandria states, “Human nature acquired the weakness of corruption in Adam because of disobedience.” Because of this first sin, humanity’s original relationship with God that Adam and Eve had once experienced in Eden was broken. Death, corruption, and sin came into the world because our first ancestors chose to depart from God…God Who alone is the source of life. With our departure from God, the existence of humanity changed greatly. Like plants deprived of light, we fail to grow as we should; like an appliance unplugged from its power source, we cannot function as designed. This is the Orthodox Christian understanding of the consequences of the Fall.
Many Christians from Protestant and Roman Catholic backgrounds, however, believe that each individual human person is actually guilty of Adam’s personal sin. As Orthodox Christians, we most certainly believe that we have inherited a weakened spiritual and physical state in the mortal flesh that we all have received from Adam. St. John Chrysostom tells us that when “Adam…sinned and became mortal…those who were of him should be so also.” However, St. John goes on to ask, “But why would it follow that from his [Adam’s] disobedience another would become a sinner?” Because we are all Adam’s children, we have inherited something akin to a genetic disorder—corruption and death. However, as Orthodox Christians, we do not believe that each of us is literally guilty of Adam’s personal sin. Just as it is not the child’s choice or fault who has inherited a disease from his parents, so we share in the effects of Adam’s sin without sharing in his guilt. St. John Chrysostom answers his earlier question, stating, “One does not…deserve punishment if it is not from his own self he became a sinner.”
Having this proper understanding of Adam’s sin, we must return to the words of St. Paul: “Death spread to all men because all men sinned.” Each of us has inherited a weakened human nature…because of Adam’s sin, we are all now subject to corruption and death. We might think that this is unjust or unfair, or that we might have chosen to obey God and remain with Him in the state of paradise if we had been given Adam’s choice. However, we are given the choice each and every day to obey Christ’s commandment to love. Yet each and every day, we choose as did Adam. Every sin, whether in thought or deed or word, is a choice that separates us from the love of God. Though we may not be guilty of Adam’s personal sin, we are all guilty of the innumerable sins that each of us has committed. As St. Paul says, “sin reigned in death” (Rom 5:21). Though we have inherited mortality from Adam, by our own sins we have shackled ourselves to “the law of sin and death which dwells in…[our] members” (Rom 7:23).
Anguishing over this captivity, St. Paul cries out, “Who will deliver me from this body of death” (Rom 7:24). Thanks be to our Lord, God, and Savior, for “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set…[us] free from the law of sin and death” (Rom 8:2). St. Cyril of Alexandria—speaking of our human nature that had been held captive to sin and death by Adam’s disobedience—states that “the same nature was later set free by Christ, Who was obedient to God the Father and did not commit sin.”
Jesus Christ, the Son of God Who existed with the Father and the Holy Spirit before the beginning of time, came into the world as a human being in order to save all of us from sin and death. As St. Paul says, it is “through our Lord Jesus Christ…[that] we have now received our reconciliation” (Rom 5:11). Christ has brought us back into communion with our Heavenly Father. How has Christ accomplished this? In part, by His sacrificial death on the Cross. In his Letter to the Romans, St. Paul tells us that “while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8).
Separated from Him and lost in our captivity to sin and death, we were unable on our own to restore our originally-intended relationship with God. Yet for this reason, Jesus Christ came into the world, and “while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son.” Our Lord “offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins….For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified” (Heb 10:12, 14). Yet St. Paul also says, “Much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life” (Rom 5:10). It is not only by the sacrificial death of Christ, but also by being united through Baptism to His Divine life, that we are reconciled and saved (Rom 6:3-11).
As Orthodox Christians, we do believe that “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For man believes with his heart and so is justified, and confesses with his lips and so is saved” (Rom 10:9-10). However, this confession of faith—which takes place at our Baptism—is our entrance into the Body of Christ, which is the Church (John 3:5, 1 Cor 12:12-13, Col 1:24). And it is our entrance into Christ’s Church that is our entrance into His salvation. Having been united to Christ and made members of His Body through Baptism and our confession of faith, we begin the lifelong process of “working out…[our] salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12).
Salvation is a choice. It begins with a decisive choice…sometimes made in one single moment that we remember for the rest of our lives. But salvation is also a process. Salvation is something that we must continually choose. As St. Paul himself states, it is a joyful process, and with hope we await its ultimate fulfillment at Christ’s Second Coming: “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil 1:6). Yet, because salvation is a choice and a process, we must constantly strive to realize it. St. Paul himself attests to this, writing, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own….I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Jesus Christ….Only let us hold true to what we have attained” (Phil 3:12-16).
As Orthodox Christians, we must always remember that this life in Christ—our salvation—takes place within His Body, the Church. In the Church, we are united to Christ, and because He is the Head, we receive His life and sanctification as members of His Body (Col 1:18-19; Eph 5:26-27). In the Church, we are strengthened by Christ’s very Life when we receive the Divine Eucharist (1 Cor 10:16), and when we experience all of the Holy Mysteries (Baptism—Jn 3:3-8; Rom 6:3-5; Chrismation—Eph 1:13-14; Eucharist—Jn 6:47-51, 53-58; 1 Cor 10:16-17; Confession—Mt 16:19; Lk 24:47; Jn 20:22-23; Marriage—Eph 5:21-33; Ordination—Heb 4:14-5:10; Unction—Mk 6:13; Jas 5:14-16). In light of this grace-filled and sacramental life, St. Paul encourages and admonishes all of us who would be members of Christ: “Working together with Him, then, we entreat you not to accept the grace of God in vain.” (2 Cor 6:1). Having been given the unimaginably great and most wonderful gift of salvation in Christ…having been made members of His very Body…let us not accept the grace of God in vain. Rather, let us choose to realize this gift every day of our lives. In fear, and faith, and love, let us work with God to receive and to choose our salvation. Let us commend ourselves, and each other, and all our life unto Christ our God.