A while back, I published a blog on Faith vs. Works. It wasn’t very good and it received some much needed criticism for its lack of patristic insight. So, I thought I would give it another shot.
Probably the reason I got off track last time was because I started within the erroneous Western false dichotomy of faith vs. works. This time, I won’t discuss the Western positions, Calvinism, Arminianism, Martin Luther, or any others. The whole faith vs. works argument never existed in the East. Nor do we teach salvation through works, as if we can earn our way to heaven.
SALVATION IN ORTHODOXY
Instead, here is how I understand Orthodox Soteriology:
God created man in His image and likeness with the purpose of eternally communing with mankind. However, we fell into sin, shattering the image and likeness of God within ourselves, but not completely destroying it. The nous, that is the spiritual organ (sometimes translated as mind/intellect in the Bible and the Fathers), was darkened and blinded by sin. In that state, we could no longer truly commune with God. For communion in the Orthodox sense is not simply fellowship, but union and oneness. Death entered humanity through sin, and the creature that was created for eternal communion fell into decay.
It was not that man simply needed pardon of his sin, or that some price had to be paid for a pardon, but man needed the image of God restored within him and he needed the nous healed of its spiritual blindness in order to restore communion with God and overcome death.
In order to save mankind (and all of creation that fell into decay as a result of man’s sin), God united the human and divine natures into one being: the God-man Jesus Christ. He assumed in Himself every aspect of our human nature in order to redeem it. Our Lord took flesh from His Virgin Mother Mary; was born in the normal, messy human way; was baptized; hungered; thirsted; slept; wept from sadness; smiled at beauty and enjoyed good times with friends (my opinion); was betrayed by all those who swore to defend Him; felt the deepest loneliness and separation from God that a man can feel (“My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?“); suffered a cruel, inhumane death while taking all of the sin of the world upon Him; and entered into the nethermost regions of Hades where the dead souls resided in darkness. His body laid in a grave, biologically dead, but His soul illumined the darkness of Hades and He brought up all with Him who were God-loving in their lives on earth.
Our God, in His body, touched the heights of divinity in His Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor and experienced the lowliest feelings of separation and despair upon the Cross. There is no place that a human can go, no emotion or sadness that we can feel, nor tragedy that we can experience that our God has not touched in some way between the time of His incarnation and His ascension. He has completely entered the human story, touching every aspect of it with the rays and light of divinity, and illumining the path for us so we can journey with Him from those dark areas into His eternal glory.
OUR PATH TO SALVATION
What are we humans to do with this true and beautiful story? We are to follow our Lord. We are reborn in Him, baptized in Him, transfigured into His likeness through His grace; all of this while we take up the cross of our afflictions, our difficulties, our hardships, and walk the path of godly suffering and joy with Him.
We are not asked to merely make an intellectual affirmation of what our Lord did, but to become as much like Him as possible in this earthly life. We practice the virtues in faith, knowing that He is working within us to transform and transfigure us into creatures of light, beauty, and divinity.
The end goal is theosis, that is, deification. As the Apostle Peter taught, we are “partakers in the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4), and with our nous being healed through His grace, we are able to see and commune with God. To partake in God must mean that we either pull Him down to something less than what He is now or we are elevated to divinity. This is not the same as some of the Eastern religions that teach that humanity is to be swallowed up and absorbed into divinity. There will always be a sharp distinction between Creator and created. But somehow, mysteriously, through grace we will be made what our Lord is by nature. As earlier Fathers of the church said, “God became man so that man might become god.”
So, we Christians go to church, partake of the sacraments (mysteries), struggle fiercely against sin in order to heal our humanity, and practice the virtues so that our entire being can be divinized and we can be little Christs.
It is not that we think we can “work our way to heaven,” but that we desire to be like Christ so that we can unite with Him in the End. God is our salvation, God is heaven, and union with God is the only way to know or experience salvation and heaven. Like will unite with like, and that which is unlike will experience the darkness and torments of their sin against love forever. 
So, we struggle to be as much like God as we can in this life so that we can be united with Him in the next life. How far we get in the struggle doesn’t matter as much as the fact that we are struggling to move a little bit more from death to life every day. Some of us will reach the end and feel like we’ve hardly gotten anywhere despite our struggles and our tears; others will literally glow with the grace of the Holy Spirit. God knows where we’re coming from and where we’re going. As long as we are continually moving toward Him, that is salvation.
1. Featured image is from the Getty Museum. It is from a 13th century manuscript with the Transfiguration icon.
2. Some might still question: so how do faith and works play into everything that I wrote above? I think faith is the divine spark that begins a longing within us to unite to God. As we struggle to overcome sin and shine with the virtues (works), our faith is strengthened which in turn deepens our works. Our faith drives us to become more like God through grace-filled efforts that, in the end, enable to attain to God.
3. I am attempting to summarize St. Isaac the Syrian’s teaching in his 28th homily in which he states that those in Gehenna will suffer the “scourge of love.” He goes on to say, “The sorrow caused in the heart by sin against love is sharper than any torment that can be. It would be improper for a man to think that sinners in Gehenna are deprived of the love of God…The power of love works in two ways: it torments those who have played the fool…, but it becomes a source of joy for those who have observed its duties. Thus I say that the torment of Gehenna is bitter regret.”