Joel in GA wrote a couple of interesting questions in the comment section of my post on justification. His comment was:
Thanks for at least bringing up the subject. I had been wondering. I think that, for Lutherans, limiting the discussion of justification to the question of God's forgiveness will satisfy Lutherans. Otherwise the discussion is apt to drift into other areas.
Does or may an Orthodox Christian believe his sins are forgiven? If so, on what basis are they forgiven--God's mercy in Christ, his own good deeds, or both?
My impression from reading Orthodox literature--and in terms of spirituality I lean more Orthodox than Lutheran in some respects--is that in general Orthodox are like Roman Catholics: always in a state of uncertainty about whether they are forgiven and in a state of grace. Is that impression mistaken?
As I referenced in the comment box on that post, the short answers are "yes, we believe our sins are forgiven, and that is based on God's mercy in Christ -- God's love for mankind and His desire that our sins be forgiven." However, as I also referenced, both the questions and the last paragraph deserve a bit more fleshing out than a combox allows.
I try to avoid deeper theological issues here. I am just too new to Orthodoxy to go about teaching anyone else. I have so much to learn myself. I will try to keep things simple to avoid getting in over my head, but by attempting a response at all, I'm delving into water a bit too deep for my swimming ability. I therefore welcome and appreciate any commentary any Orthodox readers of this blog wish to add.
With that disclaimer, here goes.
1) Salvation is not merely forgiveness of sins
For the Orthodox, forgiveness of sins is part of salvation, but it is not the whole of salvation. And I'm not sure it's entirely accurate that Lutherans view justification as predominately forgiveness of sins so much as God turning us to Himself, giving us faith, etc. There is a distinction between Lutheran and Orthodox views of salvation, I'm just not sure that's it. As with the Orthodox, for Lutherans forgiveness of sins is part of salvation, but as I understand it, it's not the whole of it. Regardless of the Lutheran view, as to the Orthodox salvation is a much bigger, ontological whole than just the forgiveness of our sins. God forgives our sins, and He does so freely. But He does not stop there.
2) Salvation is not caused by our merits, worth or obedience
To answer the second question directly, there is no sense in which our good deeds earn salvation, whether this is defined as forgiveness of sins or something greater than that. Salvation is freely given by God because He loves us. Because He desires to save us. Even limiting the issue to forgiveness of sins, God forgives us ultimately because He wants to. In no sense does He forgive us on account of the fact that we believe, or repent, or do good works, or anything else He sees in us that would cause Him to look upon us with favor. God wishes all to be saved. He saves us because that is His will.
3) Yet obedience is required for salvation
I know, I know. "I see what you did there, Garner. You gave with one hand and took away with the other." But hear me out, because what I said and what I did not say is very important. We do not view salvation as solely a juridical transaction, or a declaration of unmerited favor. It certainly is those things -- God does forgive us, declare us righteous, give us His favor with no credit to us at all. But it is not solely that. In Orthodoxy, salvation is best defined as union with Christ. This is an existential reality, not a judicial one. We are not saved just because God considers us saved, but because God saves us. Really saves us. In Christ and through Him, He changes us from something we were into something He created us to be.
The traditional wording of the Nicene Creed (and the one found in my Service Book and my Prayer Book) is "I believe in one baptism for the remission of sins." Remission and forgiveness can in a sense mean the same thing. Many popular Bible verses referencing "forgiveness" in newer translations are translated as "remission" by the King James Version, the American Standard Version, etc. These include Matthew 26:28, Acts 2:38, and Acts 10:43. The ASV also translates Acts 5:31 as "remission of sins" rather than "forgive." I raise this not to question the accuracy of the later translations, but rather to make a point. If "forgive" and "remit" are synonymous, then "forgiveness" in this sense means a bit more than being declared righteous. When an oncologist announces his patient's cancer is in remission, he does not mean he has declared the cancer to be abating. He means the cancer is actually abating. God's forgiveness does not merely claim that we are not sinners on account of His Son, but rather it actually cleanses our sins, and like cancer in remission, He continues this process through the Sacramental life. When Orthodox refer to the Sacraments as "the medicine of immortality," we really mean it. God is making us to be by grace what He is by nature.
When I first encountered this notion in Orthodoxy that "obedience is required for salvation," immediately my anti-Protestant meter started to peg. It sounded like the same pietistic American Protestant notion that we offer our obedience to God, and that we should grow in Christ to the point that we no longer sin. In certain sects of Protestantism, this typically reveals itself as a Pharisaic self-righteousness, where you have the "Christians" in Church and the "sinners" out there to show us how bad things could be for us if we weren't such good believers. Before I became Lutheran, this translated for me as despair -- I couldn't keep the Law well enough to please God, so I figured I probably wasn't saved. This is not what obedience means in Orthodoxy, and it's not how obedience operates in Orthodoxy.
4) Obedience is not lawkeeping in order to earn favor
Obedience in the sense Orthodox use the term is not merely keeping the Law to try and earn favor with God. Since salvation is not primarily favor with God but rather being made by grace what He is by nature, part of that salvation is being conformed to the likeness of Christ. This means living the life Christ has given us to live. We are obedient not because we hope by our obedience God will find us worthy of salvation, but rather we are obedient because obedience is what salvation looks like. Good works are what we are saved to do.
Every Lutheran worth his salt knows Ephesians 2:8-9:
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.
But what about Ephesians 2:10?
For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
We are saved, not just so that God may call us sinless, but in order to be conformed to Christ -- to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
But our obedience is not meritorious -- even if we were to be perfectly obedient (and none of us are), we are but unworthy servants. Nor is our obedience due to some autocratic nature in God, as if He tells us what to do in order to boss us around. Obedience in this sense is doing that which God prescribes for us to do, because it is good for us. By way of example, I make my children eat their vegetables and I limit the amount of snacks they are allowed. I don't do this because I enjoy watching my children make faces as they eat or because I want to lord over them to show them who's boss. Nor do I do it in order to make them worthy of their allowances, or their meals, or their clothing, or their shelter, all of which I give them freely as their father. Rather, I do it because it is what is good for them. Because I love them and want them to be healthy and whole. In the same sense, our obedience is required not because God needs it, but because ultimately we need it.
Lutherans believe this too, at least if properly understood. They just place all of this under the category of "sanctification" rather than "justification." Lutherans also tend to equate, in words even if not in actual theology, "justification" with "salvation" and "sanctification" with "the Christian life." But since for the Orthodox, being justified isn't the whole of salvation, we view the organic whole as being part and parcel of what we refer to as "salvation." Viewing salvation as predominately an ontological reality rather than a declared righteousness, it doesn't make sense to the Orthodox to separate the two. A typical Lutheran objection to having to "do something" in order to be saved is that whatever it is that we must "do" we cannot do perfectly enough to please God. But remember -- for the Orthodox, we are not trying to "please God." Rather, we are trying to be whole, to be that which we were created to be. And not because we think it will attain God's favor, but because that is what is good for us. So it doesn't depend on how perfectly we do anything, because we are not talking about merit or worth, but life.
For the same reason, obedience need not lead to self-righteousness in Orthodoxy, nor to despair. We keep fasts, we have prayer rules, we attend Church as faithfully as we convince ourselves we are able. We strive to keep the Commandments and love our neighbor. So we should be in pretty good shape, right? Actually, what ends up happening is in trying to maintain even the slimmest measure of obedience, we learn quickly how inadequate we really are. I can't even keep a simple fast properly. We don't fast from all food -- just meat, dairy, fish, oil and wine. And we can still eat shellfish -- lobster fast anyone? I can't even do that right. It's not that I intentionally cheat so much as even where I keep the letter of the fast, I know in my heart I haven't kept the spirit of it. One can eat the "right" foods and still eat pretty well. Similarly, one can say the "right" prayers and still rush them, or be inattentive, or pay more attention to correcting the kids than to the prayers themselves. In Lutheranism, in our experience, the Law is preached to show us our sin, and the Gospel is preached to declare our forgiveness. In Orthodoxy, this same precept is at work, except in Orthodoxy, obedience is lived and manifestly shows us our sin, and the Gospel is given in the Liturgy and the Sacramental life and unites us to Christ. Again, not necessarily a foreign concept to Lutheranism (for one, Lutherans have a strong sacramental theology), but a difference in approach to be sure.
5) Certainty of salvation versus certainty of Christ and His promises
I can see why this is an issue. When we became Orthodox, something that was a bit of a stumbling block for us is the typical Orthodox understanding that "we cannot know ultimately if we will be saved." This is not, to my understanding, a declaration of our lack of assurance in God, but rather a simple statement of fact. The Orthodox view salvation as threefold -- we have been saved (by Christ on the cross, trampling down death by death), we are being saved (in the Sacramental life of the Church), and we hope to be saved (on the last and final day). Our Lord says "all men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved." Matthew 10:22. We trust in God's promises. We trust in Christ's work for our salvation. We trust in Christ's gifts. What we don't trust is us. I can know that as I stand here today, God forgives my sins, and I am living within the Sacramental life of the Church and therefore being united to Christ day by day. That much is sure and certain. What I cannot know is my future. What I cannot know is what I will do tomorrow, or next year, or in 20 years. And as with obedience, this is not a matter of how perfectly I am living the Sacramental life, but a matter of whether I will continue in it at all.
In addition, it is not ours to judge. While I have assurance of my salvation based on the promises of God, it is still Christ's to judge. Matthew 25. So I cannot judge my ultimate salvation, nor anyone else's, because it is not given to me to judge. That doesn't mean I am uncertain about my salvation. It simply means that ultimately, I have to live with the fact that judgment is given to the Son, not to me. My hope is in Christ's Word, His promises, His gifts. Those are sure and certain. But my judgment is in His hands, not my own. And thanks be to God for that!
I hope this answers the questions adequately. And again, I welcome and humbly request correction from Orthodox readers of this blog who may wish to comment. Please forgive me where I have erred.