Eastern Orthodox Teaching on Salvation
“Justification is not given once and for all, nor is it a guarantee of eternal
salvation, but it depends on how much a man will live righteously or sinfully in the future. There exists no such thing judicially that instantly converts a sinful person into a righteous one.”
“I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ.”
“Therefore, it is no wonder that the Orthodox doctrine of justification plays such a minor role. The most common presentation of the Orthodox teaching on religion by John of Damascus does not mention the concept of justification at all.”
Both the very beginning and the end of the previous chapter presented the claim that the systematic teaching of salvation as described in the Bible radically differs from what the Orthodox Church teaches. It is easy to determine which religious organizations do not teach the Biblical truth on this issue. In complete opposition to numerous quotes from Scripture that show that Christians can be assured of their eternal salvation with God now, Orthodox believers live in constant fear and insecurity. Of course, this stems from their belief that salvation is based on works of human merit, and thus they need to earn God’s favor in order to receive eternal life. Some of the works that Orthodoxy cites in order for human beings to attain the kingdom of Heaven include: baptism, communion, fasts, confession to the priests, prayers to dead saints and angels of God, prayer on behalf of the souls of dead people, and many other types of works.
Before we begin to study the issue of Eastern Orthodox doctrines of salvation, we will respond first to the criticism that Eastern Orthodox theologians hurl at evangelical Protestants. They accuse Protestants of propagating erroneous beliefs that are contrary to the Bible. Such criticisms are, of course, the result of unfounded and erroneous understanding of the texts of Scripture on the part of Orthodoxy, as will be proven.
The last chapter clearly demonstrated that the entire Bible, including both the Old and especially the New Testaments, strongly emphasizes that salvation comes only by the grace of God exclusively through faith in Christ the Savior (i.e. the birth of God in human flesh by the Holy Spirit). Despite such clear teaching, the Orthodox theologian Lazar Milin states the following complaint in his book. He uses a very narrow argument to persuade the “true believers” that Protestants (including those of evangelical persuasion) base their doctrine of salvation on an incorrect translation of the Epistle to the Romans by Martin Luther. Here is what Mr. Milin writes:
“As a matter of fact, Luther argued, and other Protestants also affirmed, that a man is justified before God only through faith in Christ and the redemption that Christ brought to suffering humanity. This is called a material principle of the Reformation. Good works are not necessary for salvation… It is interesting to study the process how Luther translated the Holy Scriptures into the German language. In Romans 3:28, the verse reads: ‘We believe, namely, that a man is justified by faith independent of works of the Law.’ Luther added to the translation an extra word: “alone”. That word corrupted the Holy Scriptures to say what Luther declared as a material principle of the Reformation: ‘Man is saved by faith alone.’… Regardless of the fact that such teaching is illogical and contrary to the Bible, it has infiltrated the entirety of Protestantism in all its forms.”
It is obvious that Milin and other Orthodox theologians, as well as ordinary Orthodox believers, believe that Protestants are wrong. They believe that Protestants are misled by Luther’s translation of the Holy Scriptures.
Is it truly possible to believe this accusation after reading the previous chapter? After we have provided scores of Biblical texts, which very clearly describe God’s way of salvation, valid for every person? Well, is there anywhere else in the Bible that states that a man can only be saved (or justified) by God through “faith alone”?
Regarding this issue, we can give a very clear answer. Even if such wording existed nowhere else in Scripture, that is, the system of salvation by faith alone, the biblical text confirms everything (with the proviso that readers understand how they were written).
However, the Lord through the Apostle Paul ensured that once and for all that the biblical text would indeed uphold the doctrine of salvation through faith alone for those who wish to accept Him and obey His Word. The apostle Paul wrote Galatians, an epistle in which he fought strongly for the purity of faith and the correct understanding of God’s gift of salvation, among other things. In describing his earlier interaction with the Apostle Peter, Paul said the following:
“But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter before them all, ‘If you, being a Jew, live in the manner of Gentiles and not as the Jews, why do you compel Gentiles to live as Jews?… knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified. But if, while we seek to be justified by Christ, we ourselves also are found sinners, is Christ therefore a minister of sin? Certainly not!”
Perhaps you might be one of those Orthodox readers who believe that the quote cited above is simply taken from a Lutheran or other Protestant translation of the Bible. However, the translation cited above (and which is used throughout this book – unless otherwise noted) came from an original Greek Orthodox translator, a priest and professor of the Serbian Orthodox Church Seminary in Belgrade, the late Dr. Emilian M. Carnica. Besides Carnica’s translation of Galatians 2:16, there are other verses in his translation (where they clearly affirm that a man is justified by faith alone). Other translations show the same teachings. Another translator and professor of the Orthodox Theological Seminary, Dr. Dimitrije Stefanovic, in the first half of the 20th century, translated the verse of Galatians 2:16 this way:
“However, knowing that a man is justified not by works of the law but by faith alone in Christ Jesus, and we are in Christ Jesus, having believed to be justified by faithin Christ, not works of law, because by the works of the law, no one will be justified.”
Vuk Karadzic translated this verse in a very similar way:
“Since we know that a man cannot be justified by the works of the law, but only through faith in Jesus Christ, and we are believers of Jesus Christ to be justified by faith in Christ…” (Author’s emphasis.)
The following quotes come from another Serbian translation, two Croat (Catholic translations), and the final one is a Protestant (also Croatian) translation:
“But knowing that the law does not justify a man, but only faith in Jesus Christ, and to put faith in Jesus Christ, that man is justified by faith in Christ…” (Translation of Dr. Louis Bakotić. Author’s emphasis.)
“And because we know that man is not justified by the deeds of the law, but only through faith in Jesus Christ, we who are believers in Christ Jesus are justified by faith in Christ…” (Translation of Dr. Ivan Ev. Saric, the Archbishop of Vrhbosna, fifth edition,
“But as we know that man is not justified by the exercise of the law, but only faith in Jesus Christ, that we have embraced the faith in Christ Jesus, then we are justified by faith in Christ … ” (Translation by Christian Bible Institute, Dr. Lјudevit Rupčić, Zagreb 1983.)
“Knowing that man still is not justified by the works of the law or otherwise, but only by faith in Jesus Christ. Since we believe in Jesus Christ, we are justified by faith in Christ…” (Zagreb edition, third edition, etc., Branko Đaković, GBV 1994).
However, despite all these clear proofs (including evidence of the truth of evangelical-Protestant beliefs about salvation, which will be explained later), Orthodox believers remain entrenched in their belief that salvation demands various pious works, even if the Bible emphasizes the contrary. The next section of this chapter will give a detailed analysis of the beliefs of Eastern Orthodox Churches and demonstrate their shortcomings to the truth of salvation as presented in God’s Word.