On Salvation and Christian Perfection

Many people talk about salvation, many wish to be saved; but if you ask them what constitutes salvation, then they will find it very difficult to reply. There would be no harm done if replying was the only difficulty! No: the harmful consequence, that this gives rise to, is of great significance. Not knowing what constitutes salvation imparts indefiniteness and incorrectness to our actions in the practice of virtue. For it seems that we do many good works; but essentially we do very few works for salvation. Why is this? The answer is very simple: because we don’t know what constitutes our salvation.

To know what our salvation is, we firstly need to know what our perdition is, because only the dead need salvation. The one who seeks salvation thereby plainly admits that he is dead: otherwise why would he need to seek salvation? Our perdition was brought about through the destruction of our communion with God and through our entering into communion with fallen, shunned spirits. Our salvation is rupturing communion with satan and restoring communion with God.

The whole human race is in perdition, in the fall. We have been deprived of communion with God in our very root and source: in our forefathers, by means of their wanton transgression. They were created spotless, not liable to sin and corruption: from the very creation they were made partakers of the Holy Spirit; having received natural existence through their humanity, they also received supernatural existence from their union with God’s Nature. Having wantonly rejected their submission to God and having wantonly entered into submission to the devil, they lost their communion with God, their freedom and worth, they betrayed themselves into submission and enslavement to the fallen spirit. They wantonly rejected life and invoked death in themselves, they wantonly violated the wholeness given to them when good was created; they poisoned themselves with sin.

As the beginning of the human race, they passed on and continue to pass on their infection, their perdition and their death to all humanity. Adam, who was created in the all-Holy Image and Likeness of God and who was supposed to bring about such descendants, defiled the Image and destroyed the Likeness and brought about descendants in accordance with the defiled image and the destroyed likeness. The Holy Scripture, which testified that man was created in the Image of God, indeed deprives the children of Adam of this testimony. The Scripture recounts that they were born in the image of Adam, that is to say, as Adam became through the fall. Due to the loss of the likeness, the image became defiled. The Scripture makes this sorrowful confession of every person who enters into fallen existence:

I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 50:7).

Men became the enemies of God, their Creator.

God, in His ineffable mercy, called the human race into communion with Himself once more. He did this in the most marvellous, unfathomable way. He took on humanity as one of His three persons, the All-Holy Word, being conceived in the womb of the All-Holy Virgin, having set aside from Himself ordinary human conception from a man’s seed; the conception which passes on the infection of sin to all men. In this way a stainless Man appeared in the human race, just as the forefather was made. This stainless Man was a partaker of God’s Nature; alike to the first-created man, but to a great extent without compare; the first-created was holy by the grace of man, but God made man became the God-man. He took all human sins unto Himself. He could do this because, while being a man, he was also almighty, all-perfect God. Having taken all human sins on Himself, He offered Himself as a redemptive victim to the justice of God on behalf of humankind who had sinned, He brought about redemption, for He was able to do this. The uncircumscribed and eternal Holy One redeemed, through His sufferings and death, many, though limited, human sins- and the Holy Scripture with all righteousness testifies to Him:

The Lamb of God, which taketh away the sins of the world.”

The God-man Himself takes the place of the whole world and each person before God. The virtues, both social and private, which emanate from fallen human nature have lost their significance through the incarnation of God: they have been replaced by God’s great act:

I believe in Him, God sent Him.” Salvation is also this great act of God, as the Saviour Himself witnessed: “and this is life eternal (salvation) that they might know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom Thou hast sent” (John 17:3).

A Christian’s virtues must emanate from Christ, from human nature which has been renewed by Him, and not from fallen nature. For our fall does not consist of the eradication of good from our nature-this is the characteristic sign of the fall in outcast angels-but in the mix of our natural good with evil which is unnatural to us, so our fallen nature has good deeds which are attributable to it as well as virtues. These are enacted by pagans, mahommedans and all those who are estranged from Christ. These good deeds and virtues are unworthy of God, as they are defiled by the impurity of evil; they hamper communion with Him and hinder our salvation. Let us reject this false good, or to define it more accurately, this very great evil! Let us reject the actions of fallen nature! Let us devote ourselves to actions which are commanded to us through the Faith in Christ! Let us cease to lead a way of life according to the guidance of our fallen reason and the inclination of our fallen heart! Let us begin to lead a way of life according to the guidance of the Gospel commandments and the requirements of God’s will. By living in this way, we will be saved.

Those who attribute to the good deeds of fallen nature a great value which they do not warrant, fall into the greatest error, which is damaging to the soul. Without realizing it, they fall into the dishonouring and rejection of Christ. They are often heard to ask: “Why cannot pagans, mahommedans and lutherans be saved and those who are like them, the open and hidden enemies of Christianity? Many of them are the most virtuous people.”

It is obvious that such querying and disputing arise from complete ignorance of what human perdition and salvation consist of. It is obvious that such querying and disputing dishonours Christ and expresses the thought that the Redemption and Redeemer were not indispensable for men, that men could fulfil their salvation by their own means. In short, this querying and disputing is a rejection of Christianity. The virtues of fallen human nature had their merit, as did the Old Testament commandments, until the coming of Christ; they led man into a state of being able to accept the Saviour.

Light is come into the world,” said the God-man about his coming to men, “and men loved darkness rather than Light: because their deeds were evil. For every one that doeth evil hateth the Light neither cometh to the Light, lest his deeds should be reproved [for their deeds were evil]. But he that does truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God.”

It is natural to those who have loved sin to reject Christ, because Christ commands renunciation of sin, which sinners love. It is natural to the lovers of virtue to come to and adhere to Christ because Christ is the fulfilment (the fullness) of the good they love.

God does not look at the face, but “in every nation he that feareth Him and worketh righteousness is accepted by Him.” These words were spoken by the holy apostle Peter about the pagan, the centurion Cornelius, who was called to the Faith by God. Striving for true virtue prepared Cornelius and made him capable of accepting salvation. The word ‘pleasant’ should be understood in this way, according to the exegesis of the great teacher of the Church, Saint John Chrysostom; this word is defined in this way in the narrative itself, laid out in the Acts of the Apostles by the holy Evangelist Luke.

Although Cornelius was a pagan, once he had abandoned idols, he prayed steadfastly to the true God and gave many alms. Once, during prayer, an Angel of God appeared to him and said:

Cornelius! Thy prayer is heard and thine alms are had in remembrance in the sight of God. Send therefore to Joppa and call hither Simon, whose surname is Peter (the Apostle): He, when he cometh, shall speak unto thee [and by them shall thou be saved and all your household]”

The prayers and alms of Cornelius were so powerful that the merciful Lord beheld them; but they would not have granted Cornelius salvation in themselves. They made him capable of coming to believe in Christ, but faith in Christ granted him salvation. This is an accurate assessment of the good of fallen nature! When this good has merit, then it leads to Christ. But when it separates us from Christ, being satisfied with itself, then it becomes the greatest evil and it takes salvation, bestowed by Christ, away from us; it cannot at all grant salvation by itself.

[…]

The error of those who, being blinded by pride and self-regard, impute a merit to their good deeds, the deeds of fallen nature, which cannot be ascribed to them, is just as fatal for the soul. “He is a robber and thief, says the venerable Macarius the Great, “he who does not come in by the doors, but climbs up some other way”: just so is he who justifies himself without the justifier, Christ. All the saints, abandoning their own truth, sought the truth of God and obtained by it (holy) “love, hidden from nature,” corrupted by the fall. Nature, being corrupted by the fall, has a corrupted truth.

But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rag,”s says the Prophet. “From the sole of the foot even unto the head there is no soundness in it” (in fallen man).

The evil which has confounded us, is, according to the Fathers’ exegesis of the words of the Prophet, not in a part, but in the whole body; it embraced the whole soul, overcoming it with its powers. There has remained in our nature no particle undamaged or uninfected by sin: no action of ours can evade a measure of evil. When water is mixed with wine or vinegar, each drop of it contains a mixture of both, just like our nature, which being infected by evil, contains a measure of evil in every area of its actions. All our attainment and worth is in the Redeemer.

Man is…justified…by faith in Jesus Christ.”

Complete surrender of one’s soul is required to be assimilated to the Redeemer by living faith, that is, not only of sinfulness, but of the righteousness of fallen nature. Striving to retain the truth of fallen nature, which is defiled by sin, is the active rejection of the Redeemer.

Christ is become of no effect unto you, (you have become estranged from Christ) whosoever of you are justified” by the law of Moses or the natural law; “ye are fallen from grace,” says the Apostle. “For if righteousness come by the law, the Christ is dead in vain.”

This means that a form of thoughts (wisdom), which allows for the worth of one’s own human truth before God after the advent of Christianity, certainly contains a blasphemous concept, which tints the whole of this form of thoughts, a concept that Christ is not necessary for salvation, a concept which amounts to rejection of Christ. The Lord said to the Pharisees who were trying to retain their own truth,

but now ye say, we see; therefore your sin remaineth. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”

This means that those who do not admit their sins to be sins, but who estrange themselves from the Redeemer through the obscene rags of their own righteousness, which has been defiled and mutilated through communion with sin and satan, who confess Him, perhaps, with their lips, reject Him in their actions and in their spirit.

The holy Apostle Paul, who was stainless and righteous according to the law of Moses and the natural law, considered his righteousness “but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ.” He renounced his righteousness, considering it to be “dung” (to be rubbish), “that I may win Christ,” said the Great Paul, “not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith.” “While we seek to be justified by Christ, we ourselves also are found sinners”: therefore there is no possibility of coming to Christ and being assimilated to Him, without confessing oneself with sincerity of heart to be a sinner, a dead sinner, who has no justification or worth of his own.

“By the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight. But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets. Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference. For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”

By the immutable law of asceticism, the abundant awareness and sensation of one’s sinfulness, which is bestowed by God’s grace, comes before all other blessed gifts. It prepares the soul to accept these gifts. The soul is not capable of accepting them, if it does not first come to the state of blessed poverty of spirit. “When the mind begins to see its own sins, numbering as the sands of the sea, this is the sign of the beginning of the soul’s enlightenment and mark of its health.”

Having reached this state, Bishop Tikhon of Voronezh said: “Let us recognize our sins: for this is the beginning of repentance. Let us repent, let us admit that we are not worthy of anything.” The more they (the saints of God) recognise themselves to be most unworthy, the more God, who is good and compassionate, rewards them. What is ours? Weakness, corruption, darkness, malice, sins.” Let us beware of fatal delusion! Let us fear rejecting Christ through delusion! Let us fear the sure loss of salvation in exchange for assimilation to false thought, which is at enmity with Faith! Vigilance is even more needed in our time, since a teaching on the supremacy of the virtues and the achievements of fallen humanity is now being spread with particular effort, with the open aim of attracting everyone to the practice of these virtues and this attainment. Mocking the all-holy good of Christianity, this teaching is trying to inculcate disdain and hatred for it.

The deeds of salvation are the deeds of the Faith, the deeds of the New Testament. By these deeds, it is not human knowledge that is fulfilled, nor the will of man, but the will of All-Holy God, which is revealed to us in the commandments of the Gospel. The Christian who wishes to inherit salvation, must carry out the following deeds:

1) To come to believe in God just as God commands us to believe in Him, that is to say, to accept the teaching about God which has been revealed by God, to accept Christianity as preserved in all purity and fullness in the heart of the Orthodox Church which was planted by the God-man in the East, which spread across the world from the East and which has until now remained in its entirety only in the East and which contains the Christian teaching devoted to God, undistorted, without changes and without addition to it of human or demonic teachings.

“For he that cometh to God must believe that he is,” says the Apostle, “and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” 

The Christian teaching is proclaimed as a universal proclamation and accepted by faith. Being a Divine teaching, a God-revealed teaching, which surpasses human reason, it cannot be accepted other than by compassion of the heart, by faith. Faith, by its natural quality, is able to accept and assimilate to the mind and the heart that which is inscrutable to the mind and cannot be accepted by the normal means of judgement.

“He that believeth and is baptised, said the Lord, “shall be saved: but he that believeth not shall be damned.”

2) The person who has come to believe must offer up repentance for their former wantonly sinful life, and resolutely decide to lead a life which is pleasing to God.

“But as he which hath called you is holy,” the Apostle Peter instructs Christians, “so be ye holy in all manner of conversation, as obedient children, not fashioning yourselves according to the former lusts in your ignorance.” 

It is impossible to be assimilated to God or to remain in this assimilation to God, while wantonly remaining and being in the sinful life. The New Testament proclaims repentance to all who come to God, as the first condition of reaching God. The preacher who began the preaching of the New Testament, great John the forerunner of the Lord, began his preaching with a call to repentance. “Repent,” he said to fallen men, who were called to communion with God once more, “for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” The God-man Himself began his preaching with these words: “from that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  The Word of God commanded to His holy Apostles to begin their preaching with these words, having sent them first “to the lost  sheep of Israel,” afflicted by perdition, despite the foretoken of communion with God that was given to them. “And as ye go,” commanded the Word of God to the apostles, “preach, saying, [repent, for] the kingdom of heaven is at hand. The call to faith and to repentance are divine. Obedience to this call is necessary for salvation: it is the fulfilment of God’s all-holy will.

3) Once they have come to believe in God and have rejected the sinful life to enter into communion with God, they enter into this communion by means of the first Christian mystery: holy Baptism: Baptism is birth into the Divine life. It is not possible to enter into natural existence without having been born according to the law of nature; it is not possible to enter into communion with God, which constitutes our true life or our salvation, without having entered into Christianity by means of holy Baptism. This is a Divine decree.

By Baptism we enter into “regeneration”, that is to say into holy existence, which was given to Adam at his creation and which he lost at his fall; it has been returned to us by our Lord Jesus Christ.

“Except a man be born again, said the Lord, “he cannot see the kingdom of God. Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.”

Being born according to the flesh, we are the descendants of our forefather in the flesh, Adam, who gave us being as well as eternal death; by means of holy Baptism we pass into the spiritual lineage of the God-man, Who, according to the Prophet’s testimony, is All-mighty God, [the Ruler], The Prince of Peace, the Everlasting Father, Who by giving us spiritual birth, destroys in us the root of death which was planted by our birth in the flesh, and gives us eternal life, salvation, bliss in God.

Holy John the Theologian preaches about those who have come to believe in God and who have been reborn through holy Baptism:

“But as many as received Him, to them gave He power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on His name: which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, but of God.”

Holy Baptism, having made us children of God, restores our freedom which was given to us at the creation and which we lost in the fall, it restores our strength of will and gives us the power either to remain the children of God or to reject our adoption. Likewise the forefathers were granted autonomy in paradise either to remain eternally in bliss or to lose it.

“Therefore we ought to give the more earnest heed,” that is, to watch ourselves with particular care, “lest at any time we should let them slip.”

Holy Baptism is sealed by another mystery which immediately follows it: holy Chrismation. This mystery is rightly called the seal, for holy Baptism can justly be called a condition and a testament between God and man. The seal with which this condition is sealed is holy Chrismation.

4) Remaining in the adoption of God, bestowed through holy Baptism, is sustained by living according to the Gospel commandments. Remaining in the adoption is lost by distancing oneself from a way of life according to the Gospel commandments. Both of these things the Lord Himself witnessed to:

“If ye keep my commandments,” He said, “ye shall abide in my love. If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned.”

It is necessary for salvation that the baptised in Christ should live according to the laws of Christ.

5) The God-man, having given us birth into salvation through holy Baptism, leads us into closer communion with Himself by another great, inscrutable mystery, the mystery of the Eucharist, by means of which we unite and commingle our body and blood with the body and the blood of the God-man.

“He that eateth my flesh,” said the Lord, “and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him. Whoso eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life. Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink His blood, ye have no life in you.” 

The God-man completely tore us from affinity with the old Adam by means of this mystery and led us into closer affinity and unity with Himself. How can those are one with the God-man not be saved? “Wheresoever the body is, thither will the eagles be gathered together,” nourished by this body, testifies the holy Gospel. By worthy and customary (frequent) consumption of the spiritual food, which came down from Heaven and gave life to the world, we will become spiritual eagles, we will rise from the depths of the fleshly state to the heights of the spiritual state; we will soar to where the God-man raised human nature and His body, being in God the Father by His Divinity from time immemorial and seated on the right hand of the Father by human nature through bringing about the redemption of men.

6) God gave us the mystery of confession to sustain our weakness, to heal the sinful sores which we incur after Baptism and to sustain in its entirety the sacred gift with which we are sealed by holy Baptism. The state bestowed through holy Baptism is renewed and restored by this mystery. The mystery of confession must be partaken of as often as possible: the soul of a man who has the habit of confessing his transgressions often is held back from transgressions by the remembrance of the forthcoming confession; conversely, unconfessed sins are usually committed again, as if they are carried out in the dark or at night.

Translated from the Russian by Nicola Dockray 

 

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