“I trust, that by God’s grace, I am being saved.” Salvation is a process, lifelong, but I can at least say, I trust by the divine compassion and mercy, I am being saved, but up to the gates of death, I have to go on repenting.
Thank you very much.
Let me begin with a question that was put to me some time ago in a railway train. The person sitting opposite, fixed me with a piercing gaze and said, “Are you saved?” Now how did I answer? How would you answer? I’ll tell you my own answer, but not now. You will have to wait to the end of the lecture.
Are you saved? In order to reply to that, we have to ask ourselves, what do we mean by salvation? From an Orthodox standpoint, there are once four points to be made. Great is the mystery of our religion. It is said in the pastoral epistles 1 Timothy 3:16, “God was revealed in the flesh, justified by the spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the Gentiles, believed in throughout the world, taken up in glory.” Equally we may say great is the mystery of our salvation. Salvation is not to be easily explained. It is a mystery, reaching out into the dazzling darkness of God. There is so much that we cannot express in words. Here I recall a hymn, that we Orthodox use each year on Holy Saturday. “Let all mortal flesh keep silence and stand with fear and trembling.”
Of this mystery of salvation, this is my second preliminary point, this at least may be said, in the words once more of the pastoral epistles, this time, 1 Timothy 2:4, “God desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” That was a text greatly emphasized by John Wesley, but it’s a text emphasized equally in Orthodoxy. The offerof salvation is extended to every human being without exception, but this is the third point, at the same time we human beings can refuse that offer. God is free, and so each human person, fashioned in God’s image is likewise free. The words of Soren Kierkegaard, “The most tremendous thing granted to humans is choice, freedom.” And St. Augustine says, “God made you without your agreeing to that, but he will not save you without your consent.” We cannot be saved without God, but God will not save us, without our voluntary consent. It says in the Harmonies of Macarius, an important influence on John Wesley, “The will of man is an essential precondition for without it God does nothing.” Our salvation results from the convergence. The Greek word is, synergia, of two vectors of unequal importance, yet both essential. Divine grace and human freedom.
A fourth point that I want to mention at the beginning is this, for the Orthodox tradition salvation is personal, but it is not isolated. We are not saved alone, but as members of the body of Christ, the church, through sharing in the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion.
I leave my four models with you, but I’ve got still a promise to fulfill. St. Paul says, 1 Corinthians 9:27, that he’s afraid after preaching to others, he himself will be rejected. Long after his Damascus experience of conversion, he was afraid that he might fall away. Christ saving work is an accomplished fact. His victory is complete, but my participation in that saving work, in that victory, is not yet complete. I retain free will and with it the possibility of falling away.
St. Anthony of Egypt, the father of monks, says, “Expect temptation until your last breath.” I am on a journey, yes, but that journey is not yet completed. Should I have answered, “No. I’m not saved.” He might well then have said, “Well, what are you doing going around dressed like a clergyman?” Would that would not that be a denial of the grace that I receive from Christ my Savior? Perhaps then I should have answered, “I don’t know.” But wouldn’t that sound rather feeble. In fact I chose to answer, using the present tense, but using the continuous form of the present tense, “I trust, that by God’s grace, I am being saved.” Salvation is a process, lifelong, but I can at least say, I trust by the divine compassion and mercy, I am being saved, but up to the gates of death, I have to go on repenting.
There’s a story told of one of the great Desert Fathers, Abba Zissou. He was dying, and in earlier ages death was a public event. Lots of people stood watching you as you died. All his disciples are around him and he begins talking and they say, “Who you were talking to Father?” And he says, “ I’m talking to the Angels. I’m asking them to give me more time.” Why?”, say his disciples. “I’m asking him to give me,” he answers, “more time to repent.” His disciples say, “But Father you are holy. We all know that. You don’t need to repent.” And he replies, “Surely I do not know it in myself if I have even begun to repent.” Then his face lights up and he says, “The Lord has come!” and he dies with radiant light shining from his face. Well, that is my hope that I may die as Abba Zissou did.