Last time we were together, we were looking at how the relationship of perfect oneness with Christ and incomprehensible intimacy of being comes about, in contrast with the Western Christian view of imputed righteousness. We saw that the model for our relationship with Christ is the union that exists between God the Father and God the Son.
We had asked: How does their relationship of perfect oneness come to be? Does it happen like the Western version of salvation, that is, do you suppose that the Father just declares himself to be one with the Son without actually being one with the Son? Are they just sort of theoretically one, but not really one? That’s a nonsensical idea. The Father and the Son are one because they are genuinely coupled in a living divine union so profound that it is the very definition of love. As St. John affirms, “God is love” (I John 4:8).
And what did we just hear Jesus say? We human beings are to be one with God in the same way that Jesus is one with the Father. Actually, he also says we’re to be one with other believers in the same way that the Father and Son are one, but that’s a discussion that will have to wait for another day.
God’s true plan of salvation has this perfect unity as its ultimate goal, and that unity is not something that can be accomplished by the West’s contract version of salvation. Perfect oneness is not something that can be achieved just by passively believing and receiving. No, perfect oneness requires that the two beings involved in the relationship give themselves to each other, with complete self-forgetfulness and absolute devotion. True oneness, which is nothing other than real love, demands sacrifice, obedience, and the absolute humbling of oneself before the other.
The truth is, God has done all this, given us all this, through Jesus Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection. And by recreating us through Christ, by placing his own Spirit within us, he has transformed us into beings with the power to give all this to him, to do all this for him. He has made it possible for us to participate in the highest sort of love—divine love—with him. To know true salvation, we must embrace that relationship with all that it demands of us.
I’ve had some Western believers tell me that they believe, indeed, that God wants to develop this relationship with us, but they think that this union of love with him is something that happens separately, over and apart from being saved. Salvation itself is still just “believe and receive.”
But how could that be? Would God devise a plan of salvation that had nothing to do with attaining his ultimate purpose for human beings? Is God going to save people so that they can live in heaven without being one with him in the same way that he and the Son are one? That’s not possible.
But following this same line of thought, my Western friends will sometimes assert that this relationship of oneness of God is something we will attain after we get to heaven. For now, all we must do is believe and receive. That’s the first stage. But the witness of the two most eminent apostles, St. Peter and St. Paul, clearly refutes that notion. St. Paul declares, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).
What else is St. Paul describing here except a life of intimate love and unity with Christ? And how does this life of perfect unity with Christ come about? As the Apostle says, in the same verse, “It is the result of the work of the Christ who was crucified and,” he says, “who loved me and gave himself for me.” Who loved me and gave himself for me—isn’t St. Paul describing God’s work of salvation here? So when St. Paul speaks of his unity with Christ, a oneness by which he becomes Christ, he’s not talking about a process that stands over and against some “believe and receive” salvation. He’s talking about a transformation that is an essential aspect of salvation, not something separate from it.
As for St. Peter, he tells us that through Christ we have here and now become partakers of the divine nature (II Peter 1:4). What does it mean to be a partaker of the divine nature if not to have an experience of the love that makes the Father and the Son to be one, to find one’s own life ceasing and be completely taken over by Christ, to actively participate in the life of the divine?
My friends, these experiences are not something divorced from salvation; they are salvation. Let me say it plainly so there’s no mistake. To be saved is to be one with God in the same way that the Father and the Son are one. This is how the Orthodox Christian East sees it, and as lofty as it sounds, it is actually a far simpler view of salvation than the West’s. Sadly, in the Christian West, the uncomplicated truth of salvation has become lost in a slurry of legal concepts: justice, satisfaction, declaration, etc.
It is an incomparably beautiful and life-altering moment when one finally grasps that salvation is just a genuine love relationship with God. Let me say it again. Salvation is nothing but a genuine love relationship with God. It’s not some pretend theoretical merely declared love. It’s not some one-sided “you do the work, God; I’ll just believe and receive it” contractual agreement. No, to be saved is to enter into a dynamic two-way give-and-take union with God. To be saved is to join with God in an enterprise of love exactly like marriage, only infinitely more wonderful. But just like a marriage, just like any real bond between persons, a saving relationship with God makes demands on us, just as it makes demands on God.
Obviously, our union with God can’t be perfect right from the beginning. Anyone who’s married knows that love doesn’t start out perfect. God doesn’t expect that either, but he does expect us to live with him in relationship, and our relationship requires that each day we affirm, not just by our words but by our actions toward him, that we love him. Sometimes that will require our falling before him on our faces in tears, repenting from the depths of our souls for failing him. Other times it will mean that we have to deal with our doubts about him. Often our love will manifest itself in our struggle to obey him. But every day it will require infinitely more than just believing and receiving.
“Just believe and receive.” Let’s let those words sink in for a moment. Really, can’t you hear just how empty, how relatively immature that notion of salvation sounds when you compare it to a relationship of genuine love? Still, when I speak of salvation like this to believers steeped in the Western Christian traditions, there’s something that unnerves them. As I said earlier, they really do like the notion of a salvation contract that requires nothing of us and is a done deal once we accept it. So when I start talking about salvation as an actual relationship with God, they find that just too iffy. I mean, if my salvation is as much based on my loving God as it is based on him loving me, then just as in any relationship, there’s a chance that I might not do my part, and if there’s the possibility of failure, then, well, that would mean that I’d be walking around every day in spiritual misery. I’d be constantly distressed about losing my salvation. Anxiety and not the peace of God would rule my heart.
Well, I’ll tell you. I lived for 45 years under the Western contract model of salvation, and for 10 years now I have lived in an Eastern Christian relationship with God. And you know what? I am so much more at peace with God than I ever was as an Evangelical that I can’t even begin to express it. And the assurance I have of salvation? Well, that surpasses anything I ever knew as a Western Christian as well. Why is that? It’s because, through the sacramental life of the Eastern Faith, which is the doorway to a living participation in the life of God, I have come to know God much more intimately than I ever imagined possible as a Western Christian. Please understand: my relationship with him is far from perfect. I’m not even close to being what he wants me to be.
One might ask how, then, could I possibly be more confident about my salvation than when I believed it to be a simple contract, a “believe and receive” done deal? Well, it’s precisely because my assurance is not based on a contract. It’s not based on a declaration. It’s not based on a theoretical belief. My assurance is based on my living relationship with my redeeming God with whom I live in ever-increasing intimacy every day. Through the often difficult yet always rewarding interplay of my life and his, I know him. I know his infinite mercy as well as I know my own breath and heartbeat. I’ve also felt his chastisement, and even known times when he, wisely and lovingly, for a moment, has turned his face from me.
But all of this has occurred in the context of a relationship with him that never fails, that has a purpose, that grows. He is committed to me, and by his grace, that is, through the activity of his Spirit within me, I am committed to him.
It’s like this. I’ve been married to my dear wife, Alice, for almost 32 years. If you ask me, “Say, do you suppose you and Alice will still be together 10 years from now?” How do you think I’ll answer? Of course, I’m going to say, “Yes.” But why will I say yes? Is it because Alice and I made a contract with each other over three decades ago? Is my assurance in the vows we made to each other, or to put in terms meaningful for this present discussion, is my confidence based on some declaration of intent that we made to each other? No, my completely unshakable, undoubting conviction that we will be together and even more deeply in love 10 years from now is based entirely upon the relationship that we have had all these years. It’s in the life of love that we have forged in those daily fires of devotion, struggle, and change. That is where our relationship has been proven and made eternal.
The same thing, you see, is true of my relationship with God. I trust his love. Through the sacramental life I lead with him, I am aware of his Spirit in me, working in me to make me one with him. If anything in the relationship starts to go amiss, he shows me. Yes, it’s up to me to respond to that, and if I continually refuse to do that, my relationship with him, my salvation, will indeed be at risk. But as long as I do respond, no matter how poorly, no matter how weakly, he, in his infinite love, is there to solidify the connection between my heart and his, making our relationship secure.
St. James tells us that God reserves salvation for those who love him (James 1:12). To Westerners who would sooner base their salvation on a nice, neat legal contract, devoid of any of the challenging dynamics of real love, I can only say this: While I’m sure you have in some way experienced the love of God, you have not yet experienced the fullness of his love. You have not yet touched him or been touched by him in the deep and powerful way that Christians in the Eastern tradition have been experiencing him since the days of the apostles. You don’t quite know how to participate in his living being, for if you did, you would see the emptiness of contract-based “believe and receive” salvation, and trusting in a salvation built on the mutual demands of a genuine love relationship would not frighten you at all.
The good news is, as thousands of Western Christians have discovered over the last couple of decades, that the doorway to that kind of relationship with God stands wide open. The Orthodox path to oneness, to love, awaits all who would embrace it.
So as I said at the beginning of this essay, my picture of the kingdom of heaven is a single great light. Within that light move the myriads of hearts who chose, over the ages, to live in perfect unity with God. Within that aura human beings share with their Creator the eternal fruits of a salvation journey that started here in the lightless regions of a dying earth. Through their commitment to the demands of love, through their dedication to a work of salvation that from start to finish is nothing else but love, they have found eternal beauty and joy in the One who has made them one.