Salvation as a Process in Time
All the way through the Scriptures, salvation is something that God has done, is doing and will do. Likewise, salvation at a personal level is something secured in a past event, appropriated now by us and worked towards in God’s future. In each of the three temporal stages, past, present and future, God, and He alone, saves. Nonetheless, in each of these three stages, salvation comes by faith and an active participation of our wills. This constitutes a "virtuous circle" as we grow stronger for God by His grace. His salvation takes root in our lives and grows according to our capacity to receive it.
We shall have more to say about the cooperation or synergy of wills between God and Man in the last study. In this session we shall look at the spatial and temporal dimensions of salvation.
In the ministry of Christ in His Incarnation the Kingdom of God was both breaking through into this realm and moving toward a denouement that was yet to come. So Jesus stated quite explicitly that the Kingdom was present in and through His work: -
"But if I cast out demons with the finger of God, surely the Kingdom of God has come upon you." [Luke 11:20]
He also called his hearers to discover the Kingdom as a present reality within them: -
"The Kingdom of God does not come with observation, nor will they say: ‘See here!’ or ‘See there!’ For indeed, the Kingdom of God is within you." [Luke 11:21]
Nonetheless, Jesus also taught that the Kingdom of God was yet to come and for this coming his friends must pray with all fervour and faith: -
" … Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven …" [Lord’s Prayer]
The coming Kingdom was to be likened to a Messianic Banquet or a Wedding Feast to which the Bridegroom would come and preside, [Matthew 8:11; Luke 13:28-29]. This feast is anticipated in the Eucharist, a foretaste of the table of Christ in this coming Kingdom, [Luke 22:29-30]. From an Easter perspective the Eucharist proclaims the saving death of Christ "until He comes," [1 Corinthians 11:26].
Since the presence of the Kingdom of God is the saving work of Christ, its past, present and future reality are all one. However, we are all creatures in space and time and we cannot behave therefore as if our present location and context had no meaning. Unless we lay hold of Him who at one particular time embraced us we shall surrender our future promise as children of God. The Scriptures firmly teach that we must believe, trust, work, persevere, and "endure to the end" if we would be saved, [Mark 13:13].
All of this is the work of God and yet we do not benefit unless we actively lay hold of it, and not just once but continuously and at a deeper and deeper level. The detailed working out of salvation as an ongoing process in the Church is given to us by St. Paul. He gives perhaps the clearest expression of this salvation process in an autobiographical comment in his letter to the Church at Philippi: -
3:7: But what things were gain to me, these I counted loss for Christ.
3:8: Yet indeed I also count all things but loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, (literally "dung"), that I may win Christ,
3:9: And be found in him, not having my own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith:
3:10: That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, becoming conformed to his death;
3:11: If by any means I might attain to the resurrection of the dead.
3:12: Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected: but I press on that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me.
3:13: Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forward to those things which are ahead,
3:14: I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
Here in St. Paul we find salvation in all of its three temporal modes. As a pious and blameless Jew He was blameless according to the Law but only came to know salvation at his conversion on the Damascus road. His walk with God was therefore firmly rooted in his own experience and faith at that key turning point when he trusted in the power of Christ’s cross and resurrection rather than his own zeal for the Law that could not save him. In verse 10, he moves on to the present where he prays that he might know Christ, the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings. Did not St. Paul know of these already? Of course he did! But he prayed he might daily grow in them daily. Salvation once acquired, (justification), must develop and grow more deeply within our lives bringing that holiness, (sanctification), without which the resurrection will forever remain ever beyond our grasp, (verse 11). St. Paul is conscious that he must move forward by grace toward his goal, (glorification). Salvation is not just what happened many years ago when we came to know Christ, it’s how that is worked out here and now as we strain forward by faith into God’s future from whence the fullness of salvation - resurrection, glorification, will come.
So much else in St. Paul’s writings emphasises this truth concerning salvation as a process in time, the work of God and the response of Man. His consistent theme is that the fullness of salvation awaits us in God’s future, in the "day of the Lord Jesus," [1 Corinthians 5:5]. We are to await the coming of our Saviour from heaven, [Philippians 3:20], and we are to be saved by hope, [Romans 8:24]. We are called to "work out our (your) own salvation with fear and trembling." [Philippians 2:12b].
Nothing St. Paul or any other New Testament wrote teaches that the saving action of God in the Incarnation, Life, Death and Resurrection of Christ is a "one-off" event fixed at an isolated moment of time both in history and in the life of a believer such that he or she can look back and say: - "at this time I was saved." Nothing in the New Testament allows us to separate justification, sanctification and glorification and apply salvation only to the first. As Bishop Maximos Aghiorgoussis says: -
"Justification is not a separate act of God but the negative aspect of salvation in Christ, which is freedom from sin, death and the devil; whereas sanctification is the positive aspect of God’s saving act, that of spiritual growth in new life in Christ communicated by God’s Holy Spirit."
Believing upon these things rightly is vitally important for dire consequences follow from trying to locate salvation only in the past. The most dangerous fruit of this wrong belief is spiritual arrogance. Sometimes those who wax the most lyrical about salvation being something that only God has done once and for all in their lives at a particular time in the past go on to say, quite logically but wrongly, that this salvation cannot be lost. How can it be lost? If it’s all "done and dusted" in the past by God and Him alone, to suggest otherwise would be to compromise God’s almighty power and this, of course, is impossible. This heresy arises from denying the ongoing reality and role of our wills in the working out of our salvation throughout our lives. The practical result of this error is that nothing I can do now can prejudice a salvation that is firmly locked into my past and the sole action of God in saving me. The truth of our Orthodox faith, however, is that I can indeed lose my future salvation by refusing the present struggle that should be going on in my life right now for sanctification and truth, a saving faith which is changing me not once and for all but, as then, so now and for ever. Anything else is laziness and conceit.
As surely as many Christians err in not seeing salvation as a temporal process, so also do they err in seeing it as something that only concerns the individual soul. No one is saved alone. The Church does not exist merely as an assembly of the saints, already saved and merely needing a bit of mutual encouragement and empowerment. The body of Christ (Church) into which we are baptised is a school for sinners and all of us learn and receive salvation together. Moreover, my salvation is tied up with yours for salvation can be nothing other than a manifestation of the Love of God for all men. This also of course is the basis of the Church’s social teaching. If salvation is not wide enough to encompass the whole of humankind’s life socially and personally then the neglected elements just get politicised by alien ideologies and then secularised so that only the private domain remains sacred, and finally, not even that. This is a gross violation of our responsibility toward for the whole of the created order. Orthodoxy knows of no selfish interiority masquerading as Christian piety. As St. Basil the Great reminds us: -
" … who does not know, that the human animal is tame and social, not solitary and wild? For nothing is so characteristic of our nature as to communicate with one another, and to need one another, and to love our kind." [St. Basil the Great: "The Longer Rules" 3:1]
This then is salvation. This is hope for the world.