Are You Saved? The Orthodox Christian Process of Salvation. Fifth Edition. By Barbara Pappas. Westchester, IL: Amnos Publications, 2006. 63 pp. Paper, NP.
Evangelicals often ask questions like, “Are you saved?” “What is meant by salvation?” and “What must I do to be saved?” But these questions are not normally asked by Eastern Orthodox parishioners. As William S. Chiganos explains in the introduction, “Until relatively recently, most of our faithful avoided such discussions because of lack of knowledge about the subject of salvation” (p. 11).
One can only imagine the spiritual darkness of a church where most of the “faithful” lack knowledge about the subject of salvation.
In any case, Barbara Pappas, a member of the Religious Education Commission of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Chicago, wrote the booklet to shed light on those questions. Unfortunately, she only succeeds in showing how contradictory and legalistic the Orthodox doctrine of salvation is.
The booklet is divided into three chapters.
The first chapter, “God’s Divine Plan,” begins with the question, “Are you saved?” Pappas describes the events leading to the fall of Adam and Eve and defines salvation as “the return to assurance of eternal life with God in the idyllic state that surrounds Him” (p. 17). Along the way, she makes some good statements. For example, here is what she says about the Mosaic Law:
The purpose of this “Mosaic” Law was to define sin by outlining perfection, that which was required to return to the presence of God. This experience would show man that he could never earn salvation on his own. Adam and Eve had one commandment to keep; now there were ten. In addition, there were 613 laws, each of which had to be kept precisely—to break one was to break them all…Man was caught in a never-ending cycle: he would inevitably break a law, bring the required offering, and go out and break another. This futile repetition continued until—finally—Jesus Christ offered Himself as the last living sacrifice on behalf of all mankind…God allowed His people to feel the hopelessness of trying to save themselves through the Law” (pp. 18–19).
This is a good summary of the purpose and effect of the law. It demands perfection. It makes us realize that we are not perfect. It teaches us that it is impossible to save ourselves by works. Hence, Pappas goes on to write that we can only be saved by faith.
…all who believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and accept and confess that He is their Lord and Savior, the promised Messiah Who provided the way to the eternal Kingdom, will receive the gift of salvation…(p. 22).
This isn’t the clearest way of expressing things. Pappas is right to say that salvation depends on believing in Jesus. But adding the words “and accept and confess that He is their Lord and Savior” can be confusing. What do those terms mean? How much accepting and confessing must you do to be saved?
The object of saving faith could be clearer too. It is true that Jesus is the Messiah. It is also true that He provided the way to the eternal kingdom. But what are we believing in Him for? Is it that He will save us if we are good enough, or have tried hard enough, or have done enough good works? Are we trusting Him to give us a fair chance at working our way to heaven?
What Pappas does not tell us, but what the Gospel of John does tell us, is that we are to believe in Christ for eternal life (e.g., John 3:16; 3:36; 5:24).
Pappas’s next statement is flatly contradictory. She starts by affirming that Christians are “redeemed once and for all from the effects of sin, not by their own efforts but by virtue of being a part of Christ.” But how does one become part of Christ? She answers, “through Baptism, Eucharist, and a life of faith” (p. 22, emphasis added). What does it mean to live “a life of faith”? Pappas clearly means living a life of obedience and good works. So despite what she wrote earlier about the futility of saving ourselves by obeying the law, it turns out that faith in Jesus isn’t actually enough to be saved. We also need good works: “Scripture is very clear in making the point that we cannot just profess faith and thereafter feel confident of salvation. Faith must be proved by a life lived according to the word of God because faith without works is dead” (Jas 2:20; p. 22). She goes on: “Scripture promises that if we participate in this struggle for spiritual growth to the extent that we are able, we will be allowed to enter into the everlasting Kingdom of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ” (pp. 22–23). No behavior, no entrance.
Do you see the contradiction?
Earlier, Pappas said that it was hopeless to try to save ourselves by works. Now she says that we can only be saved by struggling for spiritual growth (i.e., by struggling to do good works). So which is it? Is it futile to struggle to save ourselves by works or is it necessary?
The contradiction is made all the worse when Pappas quotes Leo the Great as saying that the gospel actually requires more than the OT law did. Although Christ fulfilled the law, and some aspects of the OT law “have been taken away” yet:
“…in the moral order there was no change in the precepts of the Old Law; rather many of them were enlarged through the Gospel teaching, that they might be clearer and more perfect teaching us salvation than they were when promising us a Savior” (p. 24).
It is hard to believe that Pappas, who already described the futility of trying to save oneself under the OT law, now claims it is possible to be saved by following (or struggling to follow) the precepts of the gospel, which she admits the gospel is actually more demanding than OT law! That’s like a weight lifter complaining that it would be impossible for him to press 300 pounds because that’s too heavy, and then claiming that he can press 1200 pounds. The statement doesn’t make sense. If you can’t save yourself by obeying the OT law, then you certainly can’t save yourself by obeying the NT law which is far more difficult.
How is the NT law harder to obey? Consider the OT commandment, “Thou shalt not murder.” I’m happy to say that I’ve never transgressed that commandment. But now consider Jesus’ enlargement of that law:
“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.’ But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire” (Matt 5:21–22).
Have you ever been angry? Have you ever called anyone a fool? Then I’ve got bad news for you—you aren’t good enough to save yourself.
Whether it is given by Moses on Sinai or by Jesus on the Mount of Olives, all law has the same purpose—it reveals our sin, but it cannot save us: “Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin” (Rom 3:20, emphasis added).
The plain fact is, we cannot be saved by our own works. We are only saved by faith in Christ. That is our only hope. No one is “justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ,” Paul told the Galatians, for “by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified” (Gal 2:16). Pappas seems to affirm this truth, then spends the rest of the booklet denying it. She doesn’t distinguish between salvation and discipleship. So she reads discipleship and rewards passages as giving us the conditions for eternal salvation.
Although Pappas began by lamenting how little Orthodox people know about salvation, sadly, this booklet will only leave them more confused. Better for Orthodox people to simply read the Gospel of John, and Paul’s letters to the Galatians and Romans, for a clear understanding of how to be saved.
I recommend this booklet for Evangelicals who want to learn more about Eastern Orthodoxy, but would not recommend it as a source for understanding salvation.
Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society