ARE YOU SAVED?
By Sister Ioanna
St. Innocent of Alaska Religious Community, Redford MI
Most likely you been asked by some well-meaning Evangelical Protestant“Are you saved?” The implication, of course, is that the person asking the question believes that he is “saved,” and if the person being asked doesn’t answer in the affirmative, there is something seriously wrong with him, and he needs to be “saved.” But nobody seems to stop to inquire what exactly does being saved mean? What is the meaning of salvation, this most vital, key Christian term that we use so frequently, and assume we know what we are referring to? Even Jesus’ very Name means “Savior,” and the whole purpose of His incarnating as a man, His death on the cross and His Resurrection, was to save us. While it is usually spiritually harmful to ask others if they are saved, it can be most beneficial for us to ask ourselves if we are saved, because we should be concerned about our salvation, for most of us give little time, attention or effort to the condition of our souls, while we spend much time, attention and effort caring for the condition of our bodies.
What does salvation mean?
But what does salvation mean, in general and especially to us personally? The word salvation is one of numerous “church-words” whose meaning we assume we know, but do we really? We find that people can frequently mean very different things when using certain words, but do not realize it. It is important to ask what we really mean when we use important key words, such as: salvation, faith, love, hope, peace, mercy, virtue, holiness, and even such a vital word as “God.” We suggest that someone who claims that he knows that he is saved and that he needs to save others who don’t profess that they are saved, define the word saved differently from the full Orthodox Christian tradition. Let us briefly explore what salvation is from an Orthodox Christian perspective, in an effort to aid us in caring for our souls and helping us on our spiritual journey towards salvation. We can best acquire a fuller understanding of what salvation is by looking into the actually meaning of the word, and its related terms.
The Orthodox response to the question, “Are you saved”
But before examining what the word salvation means, first let us state what the Orthodox answer is to the Protestant evangelical’s question, “Are you saved?” First, the question itself is arrogant, because it assumes that humans can usurp God’s prerogative as judge, whereas only God can judge who is or is not saved. And second, the question itself is flawed, because it implies that salvation is a quick and easy one-time event, usually associated with the idea that if we profess our belief that Jesus is the Son of God, our Lord and Savior, then we are forever saved— automatically —again, trying to both manipulate God and make ourselves our own judges. This is faulty in several ways: (a) even the demons recognize that Jesus is the Lord, as cited in many places in the Gospels, and is also obvious in Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness, where Satan—the devil himself—refers to Jesus as the Son of God, (and obviously, he is not saved); (b) if we decide to claim that we “believe in Jesus” (whatever is meant by that), and therefore are saved, then God is bound by our own claims, so we are thereby trying to control and manipulate God; and (c) the exaggerated preoccupation with the concepts of “instant-salvation” and “forever-salvation” (once saved, always saved) are totally foreign and contradictory to the entire biblical witness.
In contrast, the traditional Orthodox Christian concept of salvation is polar opposite to this. Salvation is a life-long, gradual process, that requires constant spiritual struggle and vigilance until the very moment we depart this life and stand before God’s judgment seat, when He shall separate the sheep from the goats. Also, salvation involves a living, organic, relationship of the heart with the Lord, rather than either a purely mental acceptance of a dogma (that Jesus is our Lord and Savior), or a legalistic court-room-like attitude of such-and-such a sin requires such-and-such a punishment.
The beginning of our journey towards salvation
No true Christian would contest that the purpose of Christ’s Incarnation, life, death on the cross, Resurrection and Ascension are for the salvation of mankind as clearly stated in the Nicene Creed/Symbol of Faith. And probably most Christians, if asked, “ from what are we saved?” would reply that we are saved from our sins, or from the punishment for our sins. Indeed, the forgiveness of sins is a vital part of the Gospel message. But what does this really mean to us personally? Most everyone would agree that our sins and transgressions from which we are saved are the bad or evil things that we do, say and think, including the sins of omission, that is, not doing the good things we ought to do. Certainly, repenting of our sins and striving not to sin is an essential part of salvation, but is that all? Does salvation stop there? It seems that stopping there and dwelling only on the exterior and juridical aspects of salvation inhibits our spiritual growth and is not the end goal. Without question, we cannot be saved without believing in Jesus as our Lord and Savior, and without repentance and remission of our sins. But, we suggest that these are just the beginning of our spiritual journey — like completing kindergarten — and not the end. We need to keep growing and not get stuck at the kindergarten level that inhibits us from advancing further. The traditional Orthodox concept of salvation is that it is a life-long, organic, living, vital process and journey and gradual growth towards salvation. If we think that we are already saved, then we get stuck at that level, instead of continuing to grow. One of the beautiful things about the Orthodox Faith is that there is no “glass ceiling” that keeps us from rising further — the sky is (rather literally) the limit. Because salvation involves our relationship with God — getting to know Him more and more, becoming more and more like Him, so that we can become more and more united with Him — there is no limit. If we stop at the beginning, kindergarten stage of salvation, perceived as just the profession of belief in Jesus as our Lord and Savior and repentance of our sins, while indispensable in itself, it keeps us from the greater spiritual growth and communion with Him that the Lord offers to us. If we stop there, it keeps us from perceiving and responding to the Lord as He stretches out His hand to us and calls us to come closer.
Exploring the linguistic meaning of the word, salvation
In contrast to this “Kindergarten” level of a narrow, fixed, static view of salvation, looking at the linguistic meanings of the word “salvation” and related terms can greatly assist us in trying to better understand what we mean when we use these various terms. When we inquire into the meaning of the word salvation, we find other key Church-terms inevitably intertwined, and we find ourselves immediately in the realm of medicine and healing. To start with, another form of the word salvation is salve (the “l” in salve is silent). What is salve? Salve is a medicinal ointment used for healing.
Salvation as healing: The medicinal imagery of salvation is ancient. The Church is seen as a spiritual hospital; Christ is the Great Physician; Holy Communion is the “medicine of immortality” (St. Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Ephesians 4:16). Furthermore, in the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), the Church Fathers interpret the injured man as wounded humanity; the Good Samaritan is understood as representing Christ, pouring on oil or salve to heal the wounded man and make him whole; the inn to which he is brought symbolizes the Church; and the inn-keeper represents the clergy who aid Christ in healing people’s wounds, inflicted by the devil’s attacks. Thus we are led past a juridical view of salvation, or a simple intellectual assent to a dogmatic statement that Christ is the Son of God — to a fuller, deeper understanding that salvation means being healed of our wounds and being made whole. This is our human condition — wounded and not whole. We might ask, how are we wounded and how are we not whole? If we think of sins as wounds inflicted by the devil and his hordes, rather than “bad things” we say and do, our emotional reaction is quite different. For doing “bad things,” we are punished. But being punished for the bad things we do doesn’t change us inside. For wounds, we apply ointment (salve) — the oil of love and mercy — to bring about healing of the sick and wounded condition, to make us whole. Healing and wholeness do change us inside.
Salvation as wholeness: What is it to be whole? It means that which was divided, separated, fractured — is united or reconciled. The concept of salvation as reconciliation is mentioned by St. Paul in his letter to the Romans (5:10-11), and he calls upon Christians to be “ministers of reconciliation” in his second letter to the Corinthians (5:18-20). But this latter passage immediately follows St. Paul’s call for us to participate in a new creation.” He says: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new. Now all things are of God, Who has reconciled us to Himself, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation...” (2 Cor. 5:17-18). This Orthodox and biblical attitude towards the experience of salvation is much fuller and richer than the very limited concept of “instant salvation” and “once saved, always saved.” The Orthodox view is alive, organic, growing, not static — the Christian is made whole and new, and can grow in holiness, and participate in the Lord’s work of reconciling people and the world to Himself. Reflected here are two major elements of Orthodox spiritual theology: theosis (deification — growing and becoming like God) and synergia (co-operating and working together with God).
So when we ask what is salvation and what needs to be saved, we are led, step-by-step in our inquiry, to the condition of the fallen world — humans, animals, and all of creation— as broken and divided, and in need of being restored and reconciled to our original created condition of health and wholeness. Now we are functioning in a realm that is far removed from the narrow, limiting view of salvation as only avoiding sin (doing and saying bad things) — we are in the realm of the personal experience and encounter with the divine and heavenly, a transformed way of perceiving ourselves, life, and the world around us. We encounter the new creation, where the previously divided world, has become reconciled, that is, united with that from which it had become separated: us with ourselves, with God, with our fellow humans and with the whole created world — restored to its original wholeness.
Salvation as holiness: Discovering salvation as wholeness leads to another linguistic connection. The word wholeness is linguistically related to the word holy. Holy is another ‘Church-word” that we have trouble defining. What is it to be holy? St. Peter (quoting Leviticus) says that we are to “be holy as God is holy” (1 Peter 1:15-16). We frequently sing, chant and say, “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal ...” “Holy, holy, holy art Thou, O Lord our God...” and other similar prayers in Orthodox Divine Services. Therefore, holiness is a well-established attribute of God, or perhaps part of a definition or description of what God is. Among many things, holiness linguistically means to be whole. God is the paradigm of wholeness, of being One, of being united. The relation of the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity as One God, united and whole, is a fundamental dogma of the Christian Faith. The circle is a universal symbol and image of wholeness and unity, and therefore is a universal symbol of the One Godhead. The sun is the prime example of the symbolic circle, because not only is it a circle, but it is the source of light, heat and energy, without which nothing can live. Therefore the sun is a universal symbol of God, as the source of Life.
Relationship between health, wholeness, holiness and unity with God: This leads us to the next step in our inquiry, namely that salvation consists of being healed, and health equals wholeness, and wholeness equals holiness, and holiness equals imitating or becoming like God, and being united with God. The more healthy we become, then the more whole we become, then the more holy we become, and the more united with God we become. The saints are precisely those who have acquired this health, wholeness and holiness, living in communion with God. The more we are united with God, the healthier and more whole we become.
Linguistic connection between saint and holiness: In English we don’t see the linguistic connection between being a saint and holiness, but it is obvious in most other languages, where the word for holy and the word for saint is the same or closely related linguistically. For example, in Slavic languages, the word “svyati,” or in Greek, the word “hagios,” or in Latin, the word sanctus, can mean either holy or saint. But the modern English language uses a mixture of words, some of whose roots are Germanic/Anglo-Saxon, and some of whose roots are from Latin, (with a healthy dose of Greek-based words added in, especially for church-terminology). So in English, the word holy comes from Germanic roots and the word saint comes from Latin roots. The word saint is derived from sanctus, meaning holy. And we see the obvious relationship with similar English words such as sanctified, a frequently used church-term.
Root of words salvation, holy, saint is the same — meaning whole and healthy: We have now come almost full circle in our inquiry about the meaning of being saved and salvation, as each step led to the next and to the next. The words save, salvation, saint, sanctify, salvage, safe all come from the same (Indo-European) root: sol, which means whole, and its variant, sal/salus, which means health, whole or sound condition; and our English words that come from Germanic roots, whole, holy, healthy, mean the same as the Latin-rooted words. And, it is very interesting to note that sol is the word for sun in a number of Romance languages. (cf. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Houghton-Mifflin, 1969 edition, “Appendix of Indo-European Roots,” pg. 1541; “sol-”)
As we conclude our step-by-step exploration of the word "salvation," we find that the meaning of salvation is extremely rich and meaningful when we explore the roots of the word and follow the different meanings step by step, as we have done. We discovered that we can move from our initial narrow, static elementary concept of being saved (implied in the question “are you saved?”), to a very full and alive personal experience of a life-long journey towards salvation — as being made whole and healthy by being reconciled with that from which we were divided — ourselves, God, other humans, animals and all of God’s creation. We discovered that the very word salvation has the same root as holy and saint, and that therefore, as we ‘work out our salvation’ throughout our lives, we are perpetually called to ever-increasing spiritual growth by means of continual striving towards holiness and growing closer to the source of all holiness, and becoming more and more united with God; and that sanctity or holiness is the path that every person is called to, not just a select few.
Are we saved? Hopefully, if we are ever-growing in that direction, if we are following the path towards salvation on our spiritual journey, and we are not stuck at a kindergarten level. But we won’t find out until we have departed from this life and stand before the Lord’s judgment seat. In whatever condition we are at the moment we are taken from this life, that is how we will begin our next life. If we are whole, holy and united with God in this life, we are eternally alive in Him, and so it will most likely continue into the next life. However, if we are separated from Him in this life, we are eternally dead, and so, similarly, it will most likely continue into the next life. Amen. Glory to God for all things!
By Sister Ioanna, St. Innocent of Alaska Religious Community, Redford, MI; June 2014