This isn’t exactly tying a bow on the discussion, but hopefully wrapping up some of my thoughts on this issue. I’ll also add that these are more musings rather than any hard/fast theological propositions – I am not speaking on behalf of the Orthodox Christian Church at this point, only trying to put my thoughts in a more coherent format to hopefully address the issues I’ve raised recently in a more structured, conclusory format. Which is to say, these are my thoughts on what the Orthodox Church teaches, but they may not accurately convey that teaching. Some of this delves into synergy, which is to be expected. As always, correction is welcome and coveted.
1) Salvation is not predominately a legal transaction where we are saved from the demands of the Law by the application of the Gospel. Nor is the Gospel merely the forgiveness of sins.
2) Grace is not merely the “unmerited favor of God,” but in fact is the operation of God, through His divine energies, in the life of the Christian.
3) In this light, we as Orthodox Christians are not primarily concerned with forgiveness of sins, but rather in the defeating of sin, death and the devil by Christ, through re-union with the divine energies of God in the person of Christ. We do not effect the defeat of sin, death and the devil. We receive it, and we participate in it.
4) Forgiveness of sins is absolutely a part of that salvation, but not the whole of it.
5) Thinking of the Church as the Ark of Salvation, a model emerges that, like most analogies, is imperfect, but which hopefully will assist in understanding how we view soteriology:
a. The Ark is the “thing” in salvation. Salvation is applied to humanity, not merely to me as an individual. Salvation, in that sense, occurs at the level of nature, as will be said in more detail immediately below.
b. Salvation as applied to me, on the other hand, is personal. That, in my opinion, is where most Protestants tend to start and stop. The Church, by contrast, first views salvation as something Christ has done at the level of nature. Salvation is the life-line to the Ark and the life on the Ark, not merely God declaring me as a person righteous or speaking my personal sins away.
c. In this light, Adam and Eve started life “on the boat.” They then jumped off. Willingly. Of their own volition. They were not, at this point, “dead,” but rather “dying.” They were drowning. Further, there was no way for them to get back on the boat through their own efforts. Even if they did the will of God perfectly, and lets be clear, none of us do, they are still drowning in the water. Further, the boat is moving on without them as they flail about trying to figure out how to get back (lets say it was dark when they jumped in if it helps the analogy, and the Ark is not lighted).
d. Christ, as true God, “jumped in after us.” In doing so, He took on our humanity – he became one of us. This is nature, not person. But rather than drowning as we do, Christ established a life-line back to the boat. In becoming us, He re-established communion with God – He reconnected humanity to the Ark. He did this with our nature in His person. While we as persons do not “swim to the Ark” to earn or effect our salvation, neither can we lie in the water refusing to enter the boat, or worse, swim away from Christ, and expect to be saved.
e. As a human person, I am free to accept or reject that life-line. That does not argue that my acceptance of the life-line is what effects my salvation. We are not, in any sense, saying that our “yes” to salvation is the efficient cause of our salvation. This is an error some Protestants make that other Protestants rightly speak against. We are, rather, merely stating a fact – we remain able and too-often willing to swim away from Christ, Who is in the water with us beckoning us to the boat and willing to take us there. If we (as persons) wish to die, He will let us. But He has already saved us (as pertains to our nature), and it would be a tragedy if that salvation were to be left unrealized because we (as persons) refuse it. This is what free will means to the Orthodox Christian. Not that we must meet Christ halfway and do our part, but that we must not refuse His gift to us. We can and often do fight against the salvation he offers. This is a problem for both the unregenerate and the regenerate. When the Orthodox Christian insists on free will, he is not insisting on us "doing our part" to earn salvation, but rather insisting against salvation being something that is indiscriminately applied to the person such that the individual person bears no personal responsibility in his own damnation. We are concerned not with protecting God's sovereignty or His majesty, but rather with preserving the Scriptural truth that God wants all to be saved.
f. Nor is our participation in our own rescue and, more to the point, our participation in life on the Ark as it has been set forth for us meritorious or efficient to bring about salvation. Grabbing a life-line (or, probably more accurate in this case, not refusing a life-line) does not fairly imply that the one being saved has thereby saved himself and can take credit for being saved. Again, salvation is not primarily God’s unmerited favor, but in fact, it is God’s unmerited provision of a life-line and restoration to life on the Ark. None of this is merited. It is all, 100%, a free gift that God provides without any merit or action on our part. Our action is involved in receiving that gift and not leaving the gift-giver standing (or swimming) with the gift in His hands, useless to us. That has absolutely nothing to do with merit, credit or “earning” anything. In this sense, we have no need to protect against works-righteousness or any notion that man can effect his own salvation by doing good works or believing or praying or fasting (all of which are usually chalked up as Pelagianism or semi-Pelagianism), because we do not believe that is possible to begin with. These are things we do not to earn salvation, but because they are what salvation is. This is the life God has saved us for, in order that we might live it.
g. We therefore believe we have been called not merely to repent and believe (though we are certainly called to repent and believe), but also to a particular life in Christ. We are called to do those good works God has set before us to do. If it is helpful (and it may not be, forgive me if the analogy breaks down here), we might say good works occur on the Ark rather than on the way to the Ark or in the water. This is more in line with how most Protestants view the sharp division they make between justification and sanctification. We don’t break things down that way. For us, Christ jumping in the water, establishing the life-line, taking us to the boat, and providing us life on the boat – all of that is gift.
h. It is worth repeating – even life on the Ark (repentance, fasting, prayer, good works) is gift, for we could not have that life if not for His work re-establishing the way back to the Ark and taking us and our nature there in His person. These things are not things we do to earn favor with God, but rather are things we do as undeserving, unworthy fools who Christ has nonetheless seen fit in His mercy to save. They are the life Christ calls us to live. Rather than being “works” that “merit” salvation, they are in fact what salvation looks like. They are how salvation is lived. They are what salvation is meant to be.
I hope this is helpful, and I hope even more it is accurate. Please provide correction and please forgive me where I have erred.