Friday, August 21, 2009

Reflection: What Does Salvation Look Like?

What does salvation look like?

(The following reflection stems from a spirited – and I think, Spirited – discussion of good, evil, the heart of man, and the nature of salvation among the members of the Spiritual Formation Group to which I belong. Since several of the members of the group are also members of Trinity Church, and since we will not all meet together for another two weeks, I thought a post here might clear up some issues and spur further thought and prayer. Feel free to “listen in” on our discussion. Perhaps you’ll care to share your thoughts with us.)

Let the words of my mouth and the mediations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

“What does salvation look like?” That is the question lingering from our last meeting. I’m afraid my answer then was far from satisfactory and I’d like to explain my poor response and then try to do a bit better.

“What does Mount LeConte look like?” you might well have asked instead. The truth is I’ve never been there. I have hiked half the trail by accident when I missed the fork leading to Charlie’s Bunion and unknowingly headed off toward LeConte. But the trail got steep, it was late, and I was tired. So, I turned around and discovered my error on the way back to the trailhead. “What does Mount LeConte look like?” Well, I can’t say from first-hand experience, but I can tell you about part of the trail headed in that direction. And, having read various hiking guidebooks and looked at photographs I can give you a decent description of the destination. Even better, I can point you toward some people who have completed the hike and let you ask them directly.

“What does salvation look like?” The truth is I haven’t reached it, if we understand salvation as the healing of the soul, the divinization of man (theosis). I have begun to walk the path and I can share my experience thus far. And, having read the Scriptures and having received the teaching of the Church I think I can give you a decent description. In the lives of the saints you can meet some people who are much farther along the way and some who have reached theosis, though I suspect there is always farther to go and greater union with God to experience.

So, I will hazard an answer because you asked and because the Church has provided us all with an answer. I trust in the grace of God and the presence of the Spirit to aid me in my weakness.

As we’ve discussed there are two distinct understandings of salvation, one emphasized in the Western Church – forensic salvation, a courtroom model – and one in the Eastern Church – therapeutic salvation, a hospital model. Both are present in Scripture along with several others and both should be taken seriously as part of God’s revelation of our great salvation.

In forensic salvation the human problem is seen primarily as guilt. We have inherited sin and guilt from our first parents; original sin is the theological term. Thus, from our birth we stand guilty before God, the Judge. Of course, we add to that original sin our own personal sin, so we stand doubly guilty. God has declared the death penalty upon all such sinners: “In the day you eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall surely die,” God said to Adam. And Paul reminds us that the wages of sin is death. So we are condemned – under the death sentence – by our very humanity and by our own disobedience.

And yet…and yet God truly loves his creation and desires its restoration. Therefore he takes upon himself the death penalty for our sin through the sacrifice of his only begotten son, Jesus – God from God – who for us and for our salvation became incarnate of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. With the penalty paid and the guilt erased, man can once again enter a relationship with God. In the forensic – courtroom – model, the substitutionary death of Jesus and our acceptance of it through faith and baptism, allows God to declare us not guilty. It is by grace we are saved, through faith – an act of God on our behalf, not of works that we do. And this is certainly true, as far as it goes. Unfortunately, it is usually presented in a truncated form that leaves the sinner declared not guilty but also leaves the sinner not truly changed. And that brings us to the therapeutic model.

In the therapeutic model the human problem is seen primarily as spiritual illness and death. We have inherited not our first parents’ guilt, but the cosmic and personal consequences of their sin: a broken world (cf Rom 8), forgetfulness of God, a proclivity to sin, and spiritual illness leading to death. Ancestral sin is the theological term. What is necessary for us and for our salvation is not, in the first instance, a declaration of not guilty, but a healing of the soul, a real transformation toward holiness that makes union with God possible. And so Jesus becomes incarnate – again from love – by uniting his divinity with our humanity. This is the great exchange. He receives our humanity and we receive his divinity. He receives our sin and we receive his purity (cf Is 53). He receives our death and we receive his life. He receives union with man and we receive union with God. As I’ve mention before, the classic, patristic summary of all this comes from St. Athanasius: He became man that we might become god. Not that we become God by nature or are absorbed into the Divine, but that we are transformed into his likeness by grace.

And now we come to a central feature of the therapeutic model. This transformation is not instantaneous; it is a process. It begins when we put on Christ in our baptism and receive the empowering, indwelling seal of the Holy Spirit. Now, here is the part of this model that makes most Western Protestants wary: the transformation process continues only with our participation – our work. We are not saved – in the therapeutic sense of being spiritual healed – by our work, but neither are we saved apart from it. All this is grace – God’s presence with us, empowering us for the work of salvation (Phil 2:12-13). The ability to work out our salvation with fear and trembling is a gift of God’s grace. There is no room for boasting in the therapeutic model just as no one receiving life-giving treatment at a hospital boasts of driving himself to the emergency room. And yet the driving was certainly necessary.

“What does salvation look like?” It depends on which model you explore, though I suggest that the two are not as incompatible as many Christians – both Western and Eastern – seem to suggest. Salvation is a mosaic and we sometimes dwell on an individual tile as if it were the whole image. But, to answer your question, I think we need to focus primarily on the therapeutic model.

According to many patristic sources, the healing of the soul occurs in three phases: purification, illumination, and divinization (theosis). Purification is the elimination of the passions that wage war against us and lead us away from God; it is attainment of the dispassionate life. We all struggle with the passions: anger, hatred, selfishness, pride, lust, greed, and so on. I could add to my personal list and you could to yours, as well! As an antidote, the Church offers askesis – the disciplines of self-denial: prayer, fasting, vigils, alms-giving, silence, study, service, and so on. These, of course, are empowered by the sacraments, particularly Holy Eucharist and Confession. And, it should go without saying, that askesis is performed within a worshipping community, the local church. The ascetical life brings the passions under control of the spirit/Spirit. “What does salvation look like?” In the first stage it looks like purification, like liberation from those habits, vices, and reactions that keep us from loving God wholly and our neighbors as ourselves. A dispassionate person has been freed from anger and selfishness, vanity and pride, lust and greed and all the rest. Worry is replaced with trust in God, fear with love, and sadness with joy. The Sermon on the Mount gives a good picture of a purified soul, as does the life of Jesus in the Gospels or the lives of the saints in many biographies. In the Sermon Jesus says, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” And that purification brings us to the next stage – illumination, knowing God.

According to the Fathers, ancestral sin darkened man’s nous, the spiritual mind by which man can directly perceive and know God – know God not abstractly as a concept or idea, but intimately as a Person. Man literally became ignorant of God as a Person. Purification enlightens the nous, providing spiritual illumination and direct knowledge of God. Prayer becomes ceaseless – not babbling constantly, but continual spiritual converse with and awareness of God. It is no longer necessary to say I believe in God; one can truly say, I know God. The illuminated person has passed beyond concept to experience. Do you remember in the Gospels that even Jesus’ detractors admitted that he taught as one with authority and not as the Scribes and Pharisees? Jesus spoke from experience, they from concepts. “What does salvation look like?” In the second stage it looks like illumination: mindfulness/awareness of God, ceaseless prayer, relational knowledge of God. (As you’ve certainly guessed, by now I’m quoting you the guidebooks.)

This brings us, at last, to divinization (theosis) about which I can say very little. Theosis is divine union, becoming truly a partaker of the divine nature. It is seeing God and the spiritual realm as present reality in which the communion of saints becomes living, experienced reality, and heaven becomes as real as earth – not constantly, perhaps, but frequently. Stories are the best I can do here, so I recommend Isaiah 6, Matthew 17, 2 Corinthians 12:1-6. I recommend the lives of the saints and elders, particularly those of the Athonite tradition, like Elder Paisios (found in books like The Mountain of Silence and The Gurus, the Young Man, and Elder Paisios). Think of Moses coming down from Mount Sinai, face glowing with divine light. Think of Abba Joseph standing with hands spread in prayer, fingers aflame with divine fire ( Think of Jesus transfigured on Mount Tabor, suffused with divine light and accompanied by the Hebrew saints Moses and Elijah. These are stories that point the way toward theosis and tell us what salvation looks like.

“What does salvation look like?” It looks like the Church walking the way of Jesus, all of us at different points on the path of purification, illumination, and divinization. It looks like our brothers and sisters in the faith, the saints. Ultimately, it looks like Jesus who shows us the perfect union of God and man. Better than this I cannot do.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Anonymous said...

Better than usual.


John Roop + said...


Thanks...I think. You should have heard the discussion that sparked the reflection: outstanding.

Peace of Christ,