Like many converts to Orthodoxy, I have family who are firmly Protestant and, moreover, make use of opportunities of family gatherings to challenge me (or, as they would put it, save my soul from the cult I've joined). As a catechumen, and the first year or so after reception into the Church, I--somewhat shamefully--took great delight in these arguments and heated discussions over the festive dinner table. This was wrong, I regret it deeply, and, unfortunately, it has set a now hostile tone for whenever certain members of my family are present.
However, at yesterday's American Thanksgiving celebration (held this year at the home of my parents, and prepared almost exclusively my yours truly and my mother, the handmaiden of God, Ita), I found myself once again set upon by those who think that I have damned my soul by joining the Orthodox Church. It is, after all, too "Catholic" (because of the liturgical worship, priests, going to Confession); it is also, simultaneously, too "pagan" (because we pray to the Saints, who are leftover pagan gods, and worship Mary as a mother-goddess). Sigh. Now, interspersed among the fundagelicals and pentecostals in the family, there are also a few mainline protestants (primarily of the Methodist stripe), who are about as broadly and ecumenically minded as it comes. We have different issues than I have with the other family members, but, God bless my Methodist grandmother, she sought to deliver me from the post-dressing harangue by saying "As long as he believes in Jesus and is saved, that's good enough for me, and should be good enough for anyone who calls themselves a Christian."
Of course, this prompted one of my mother's first cousins to ask me if I was "saved."
I should have just said "Yes." Lord help me, I should have and ended it right there. But, instead, I have an honest answer with "Not yet, but I'm working on it."
Instead of giving you the blow by blow account of what I said (for, unlike Plato, I am no good at writing dialogues), I shall simply summarize my thoughts on the matter in straight prose, with, I hope, fewer words and less digressions from the main topic:
In thinking about salvation, let us leave aside proof texts for a bit. As Abelard pointed out, the Bible is just a text, from which one can get a yes and a no answer for almost any question. That is to say, it is a text that is not meant to be used as a systematic treatise; one gains one's understanding of the instructional material therein (especially St. Paul's Epistles, from which any argument on salvation would draw) through the eyes of interpretation, whatever interpretive framework to which one may subscribe. Since this would not be fruitful, let us begin another method of understanding...one that looks at the point of such stories as we may find, and try to tease out the symbolic meaning therein. That is, after all, the primary method through which the Lord taught those who did not understand Him.
On the topic of "salvation" one story, in particular, stands out to me from the New Testament. In The Acts of the Apostles, the twenty-seventh chapter, St. Paul is on a ship on the way to Rome to be judged. The ship encounters a terrifying storm, but St. Paul assures all aboard that, while he was praying, an angel appeared to him and assured him that all the people on the ship would be saved.
As you may recall, after he made this declaration, the ship continued being battered by the winds and tossed by the waves for some fourteen days. Most of the cargo had been tossed overboard, trying to keep the ship afloat, and the scriptures tell us that the men on board had not eaten for many days. St. Paul instructed them to eat (for which he gave thanks to God--perhaps even performed the Eucharistic service?), after which, the rest of the food on board was thrown into the sea. After this most desperate action, the sighted land; attempting to anchor the ship in a bay, the ship ran aground and was wrecked. The centurion in charge commanded everyone to jump overboard and to swim to shore. And all aboard were, indeed, saved.
But note here that God did not calm the seas, as He had for His disciples upon the Sea of Galilee; nor did He even provide them a safe harbor in which to anchor their ship. Instead, the ship was wrecked, and the people swam to land. One could even say, they saved themselves with their efforts. Does this mean that St. Paul lied? Surely the same angel that God sent to tell him they would be saved could have saved them in a more direct fashion? Was it mere human agency and determination that got those men to the shore?
Perhaps it was. But it was also God who did what He said--no one who was on the ship was drowned or lost at sea. Human agency and Divine agency cooperated together to accomplish the Divine will. There is no contradiction here. These men could not have been saved from the sea if God had not willed it; nor could they have been saved from the sea if they had refused to swim.
This is the context, then, in which I answer questions about my salvation. I have been ordered to jump overboard and swim. I am swimming--somewhat fitfully and taking on a lot of water from time to time, but that is the nature of the contest. If I were to give up, and let myself sink, I would not be saved. But, having faith means believing that God will give me the strength to continue to swim, if I continue to swim. This is what St. Paul meant when he said to the Church at Philippi "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure." (Philippians 2:12-13).
It is God's good pleasure for us to be saved, and it is for us to work toward that salvation, through the power of God at work in us (that would be, the Holy Spirit, through communion with the Church). So no, I am not "saved." It would be presumptuous in the extreme for me to say so. But I am working toward salvation--badly, falling constantly, failing to keep even the simplest of the Lord's commandments--but refusing to give up or give in, because to stop would bring the only certainty a man can have, which is being given up over to sin and death.