For more on this topic see "Know the Faith: A Handbook for Orthodox Christians and Inquirers" - https://store.ancientfaith.com/know-the-faith/
The Protestant Reformation largely hinged on the issue of salvation, and whether one is saved by “grace alone” or by works. Protestants feared that salvation as a free gift from God had become entangled in a complicated system of indulgences and good works which had been developed in the Roman Church. An indulgence was a certificate issued from the Pope — which could be either purchased or earned through good works — and was believed to remit the punishment due for sins and thus fully or partially release one from time in purgatory.
Martin Luther, the “father” of the Reformation was primarily reacting to the Church of Rome’s use of indulgences, which gave the impression that salvation could be earned through works. This ultimately led to the two basic tenants of Protestantism: that we are “saved by grace alone” and “justified by faith alone.”
Today, except for some Lutherans and Episcopalians, very few Protestants are aware of the Roman Catholic doctrine and abuses that originally spurred the Protestant theology of salvation. Whereas for many Protestants the understanding of salvation initially included participation in the sacraments of baptism and eucharist along with a faith that is lived out through works, for Evangelicals salvation has generally come to mean merely the acceptance of Jesus as one’s (personal) Savior, i.e. “belief” that Christ died for our sins and the formation of a “relationship” with Him. This salvation is typically unrelated to the Church. Salvation is not understood to be actualized in and through the Church but is understood as something that occurs through a personal (private) decision of faith. Generally salvation is seen as a singular event with a specific date and time. Church and Sacraments, etc., are more of an afterthought following the experience of salvation. For this reason, one may choose most any church since it is not directly involved in affecting our salvation. This acceptance of Christ as Savior is understood to cleanse one of his or her sins and to make one eligible for heaven after death.Among Evangelicals there is a great fear of anything that smacks of “salvation by works.” While Saint Paul speaks primarily of not being saved by “works of the Law” Evangelicals do not make a distinction when speaking of works. It has often come to mean anything “done” to contribute to one’s salvation. This idea has progressed to the point that baptism itself is often considered a “work” and thus is rejected as essential to the Christian life. Baptism is only an outward sign and symbol of what has already occurred. The ascetical disciplines (fasting, prayer rules, etc.) and liturgical practices (anointing with oil, confession to a Priest, etc.) present in the Church from the beginning are also perceived as “works-based.” Orthodox are typically lumped together with Roman Catholics as believing that we are not saved by grace alone but also by works.These attitudes were developed from the Reformer’s attitude towards human nature. Both Luther and Calvin believed that the Image of God in man was destroyed through Adam’s fall into sin. They therefore hold that man can do nothing good and that it is impossible for him not to sin. There is a tendency, then, for Evangelicals to believe that there is nothing that we can do to contribute to our salvation. Of course this is not consistent with their own practices which, for instance, insist that one do or not do certain things – e.g., consistently read the Bible and spend time in prayer, not curse, not smoke cigarettes, etc.
Some Protestants (mostly certain Baptists) believe in “Once-Saved Always-Saved”. This is the idea that, once one has been “saved,” one cannot lose their salvation, regardless of what sins they commit.
Those who persist strictly in the tradition of John Calvin believe in “double predestination,” the idea that before the foundation of the world God predestined some for heaven and some for hell. In this view every person is equally unworthy of salvation, and therefore salvation comes to some simply by God’s decision to have mercy on some and not on others. This pre-determined destiny cannot be changed by anything one does good or bad. It is dependent upon the position that, due to the Fall of Adam, each person’s will is in bondage to evil and therefore man is not even capable of making a decision to trust in God. A decision to trust in God falls into the category of a “work” so that this would not be salvation by grace. God must first free a person from his enslavement to sin in order for him to trust in God and thus find salvation. In other words, God must first “call” man to salvation before man can respond in any way towards God. Once called, it is believed that God’s grace is “irresistible”, and thus the one called cannot reject his calling. This system is highly developed and has “loop-holes” which attempt to maintain its consistency and inner logic. For instance, someone who renounces Christ after believing in Him was in actuality never really called/predestined by God to salvation.The Protestant conception of salvation is influenced by developments in Roman Catholic theology after the Great Schism. These developments make salvation an issue of a legal release from guilt or original sin, rather than an organic union with God through Christ and the Holy Spirit. Specifically, a new view of the Atonement was accepted in the West. This “Satisfaction” theory says that man’s sin against God is a “crime” that offends Him and for which satisfaction must be made. However since God is infinite, no mere man can make this satisfaction. Therefore, God sends His Son to become Man and to be crucified. In this way God’s sense of justice is satisfied, and He can then forgive mankind through Christ. The Roman view was developed further by John Calvin to emphasize the need for “punishment” in order to make satisfaction. Christ is punished in our place on the Cross, therefore satisfying God’s wrath (anger) toward mankind.
For the Orthodox, salvation is not a mere one-time event, but a whole way of life that places us within the rays of God’s saving grace. Salvation has a beginning – which typically includes a confession of faith in Jesus Christ as God and Savior followed by Christian baptism in the name of the Holy Trinity – but is also a life-long process by which we incorporate Christ’s life as our own (cf. Gal. 2:20: “…it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me….”).
In baptism we are joined to Christ (Gal. 3:27), we personally participate in His death and resurrection (Rom. 6:3-5 ), and are therefore “born again” (or “born from above”) (Jn. 3:3). However, just as a newly born baby must be nourished a grow in strength and character, the newly baptized must continue to walk in the light of salvation (Eph. 5:8;1 Jn. 1:7). For Orthodox Christians salvation is not just a “ticket to heaven” after this life, it is participation in the life of God now in this life, as well as a never-ending and ever-increasing participation in the life to come. Salvation is not merely a mental or cognitive acceptance or belief in Christ, it is an organic reality of communion with God through Christ by the acquisition of the Holy Spirit (or “grace”).
The Orthodox do NOT and have never believed that we are saved by works. We believe in accordance with the Scriptures that we are “saved by grace through faith” (Eph. 2:8). However, the Orthodox know grace to be the real presence, power, and energies of God, freely given by God. Grace is not merely a juridical release us from “guilt” but a real participation in the life of God Himself made possible when Jesus Christ joined His divine nature with our human nature, trampled down Death by His death, and raised our human nature, now glorified and filled with grace, to the life of the Trinity through His resurrection and ascension. We are saved by grace, which means the Christian life is the acquisition of and abiding in this grace. According to the teaching of the Scriptures, the early Church, and the Orthodox Church today, salvation is the acquisition of this grace – union with God. The Protestant conception of salvation makes it an idea or concept, the Orthodox view of salvation is a real participation in God Himself made possible by Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection. God’s grace is available through the Sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist, through the Church’s services of prayer, through the reading or hearing of the Scriptures, and by obedience to His commandments, which includes good works (Eph. 2:10). However His grace is never given automatically, but according to His Personal will. It is never earned by us, but we can place ourselves in a position to receive the gift more readily:
“Behold I stand at the door and knock, if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me.” (Rev. 3:20) By revelation we know that He gives in accordance with our faith and love in and for Him, which is also manifested in love for our neighbor.
Again we agree with Evangelicals that we are saved by grace through faith. However, for the Orthodox faith is not just “belief” in Christ, but “life in Christ” (Rom. 8:2). We live within this faith through the life of the Church, which is Christ’s Body (Rom. 7:4; 1 Cor. 12:27) and by appropriating Christ’s faith into our lives. Baptism and Eucharist are not “works” but acts of faith and blessings of God’s grace bestowed freely upon us by God through His Church. No one is baptized by his own work. God baptizes, Godfeeds us with the Body and Blood of His Son, God ordains to the priesthood, God forgives in Confession, etc.
In contrast to the later Western churches, the Eastern Orthodox Church has never taught that the Image of God in man was obliterated through Adam’s sin. The Church Fathers taught that the Image was “darkened,” and that the powers of the soul became misdirected and distorted. The consequences of the Fall included that man was inclined to sin, but not by no means incapable of good. Even in fallen man sin is not a necessity. Yet after the Fall no man could be saved through his own efforts no matter how “righteous”, since “death reigned from Adam to Moses even over those who did not sin according to the likeness of Adam” (Rom. 5:14). It was necessary that man’s nature be regenerated by the incarnation of Christ, that sin be overcome by His death, and that death itself be defeated and transformed by His glorious resurrection.
The Orthodox understand each one’s salvation to be synergistic, it requires participation by God andman. This is not a just a 50/50 proposition, but requires 100% from God and 100% from man. God plays the primary part, by making it possible for man to be saved through his work of redemption and by His unending mercy. And He continually seeks man’s salvation. But man has an essential part as well, the part of cooperation and incorporation, since God has given free will to His creatures. God does not predestine anyone to salvation or condemnation, rather He “desires not the death of a sinner but desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4).
The Church has characterized the process of salvation in various ways. One of the most common descriptions of what salvation is breaks down the Christian life into three “stages”: 1) Purification, 2) Illumination, and 3) “Sanctification”. The first stage of Christian life is the purification of the heart from all traces of passion and sin, as much as this is possible. If God’s grace is to penetrate and abide in the heart, it must be purified from evil. This purification can occur by God’s grace through our obedience to His commandments and our desire to “cast off the works of darkness” (Rom. 13:12) in order to be united to Christ. St. John the Baptist is certainly an example of one whose heart was purified of evil. The disciples of Christ were being purified in the three years they accompanied Christ in His ministry. As the heart is purified it can then also be illumined by God’s grace. To be illumined means to be able to discern and see the Truth. “Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God” (Matt. 5:8). Adam and Eve were in the spiritual condition of illumination before the Fall. Therefore Adam knew the names of the animals and was able to discern that Eve was “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” though he was asleep when God formed her. Sanctification or “Theosis” means to be thoroughly saturated and filled with the Holy Spirit in an abiding way. There are many examples, past and more present, of those who have reached this state of complete and abiding grace as far as is possible in this life. This is the true experience of Pentecost which they Apostles experienced on that day (Acts 2:1).
Salvation as a process:
1 Cor. 1:18 “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
2 Cor.2:15 “For we are to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing.”
Phil. 3:12 “Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected….”
Words are not enough:
Matt. 7:21 “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.”
That salvation can be lost:
1 Cor. 15:1-2 “Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.”
2 Pet. 2:22 “For if, after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the latter end is worse for them than the beginning. For it would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered to them. But it has happened to them according to the true proverb: ‘A dog returns to his own vomit,” and, “a sow, having washed, to her wallowing in the mire.’”
Heb. 2:1-3 “Therefore we must give the more earnest heed to the things we have heard, lest we drift away. 2 For if the word spoken through angels proved steadfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just reward, 3 how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation, which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed to us by those who heard Him…”
Mark 16:16 “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.”
1 Pet. 3:21 “There is also an anti-type which now saves us – baptism….”
Titus 3:5 “…not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit….”
Humility before “certainty” of one’s salvation:
1 Tim. 1:15 “…Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.”
God judges according to our works:
1 Cor. 5:8 “Now he that planteth and he that watereth are one: and every man shall receive his own reward according to his own labor.”
2 Cor. 5:10 “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad.”
Gal. 5:6 faith working through love
Importance of good works in the life of salvation:
Matt. 7:15-20 “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.”
Matt: 16:27 “For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works.”
Jn. 8:39 “They answered and said unto him, Abraham is our father. Jesus saith unto them, If ye were Abraham’s children, ye would do the works of Abraham.”
Timothy 6:18 “That they do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to distribute, willing to communicate….”
2 Timothy 3:17 “That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.
Titus 1:16 “They profess that they know God; but in works they deny him, being abominable, and disobedient, and unto every good work reprobate.”
Titus 2:7 In all things showing thyself a pattern of good works: in doctrine showing uncorruptness, gravity, sincerity….”
Titus 2:14 “Who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works.”
Titus 3:8 “This is a faithful saying, and these things I will that thou affirm constantly, that they which have believed in God might be careful to maintain good works. These things are good and profitable unto men
Titus 3:14 And let our’s also learn to maintain good works for necessary uses, that they be not unfruitful.”
Hebrews 10:24 And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works….”
James 2:17 “Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.”
James 2:18 “Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: show me thy faith without thy works, and I will show thee my faith by my works.”
James 2:20 “But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?”
James 2:21 “Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?”
James 2:22 “Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect?”
James 2:24 “Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.”
James 3:13 “Who is a wise man and endued with knowledge among you? let him shew out of a good conversation his works with meekness of wisdom.”
1 Peter 2:12 “Having your conversation honest among the Gentiles: that, whereas they speak against you as evildoers, they may by your good works, which they shall behold, glorify God in the day of visitation.”
Objections and Responses
O: What about the thief crucified on the right side of the Lord? He did no good works, nor did he go through a “process” in order to be saved, but was saved instantly by the Lord’s grace.
R: It is true, the Lord always saves by grace, both in the case of the thief and in all other cases even though a person lives to be 120 and lives a righteous life. Although good works can bring God’s grace to us we are never saved by the works but by the Lord. There is no good work that can make us “worthy” of salvation; it is always a gift of God and it is only His gift to bestow. The thief on the right came to true faith in Jesus as God and thus Christ was moved to bestow the gift of salvation upon the thief whose heart had now become capable of union with Him. If the thief had somehow survived crucifixion, he would have needed to be baptized into the Church and would have had to maintain the life of faith and repentance and continue walking on the path of salvation if he hoped to be saved. His works would show if this were the case.
O: When asked directly how one is saved, the Apostle answered: “…if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9). Therefore salvation only requires heartfelt belief and confession of Jesus as the Lord.
R: Indeed true faith requires belief in Jesus Christ as Savior and God and a sincere confession of faith in His death and resurrection. But the question then is what does that imply and what does that faith demand from a person? In this case it was not the Apostle’s intention to give a lecture on the whole life of salvation, but to emphasize that salvation comes through faith in Christ and not by the works of the law. The criteria St. Paul mentions is a brief summary of how one came to be baptized and became a member of the Church, thus entering into the life of salvation, the life of grace. But salvation is not a matter of mere mental belief, for “even the demons believe” (Jms. 2:19). Rather faith that is unto salvation implies a whole way of life by which one lives within the grace of God. This life of grace is experienced in the Church, which is “the fullness of Him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:23). And according to the Scriptures, it is not merely faith in Christ, but the faith of Christ. The Apostle Peter, when asked a similar question, answered, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). Those who were baptized were then joined to the community and way of life of the Church.
O: But aren’t we saved by our faith? Martin Luther certainly was right when he focused on faith instead of works regarding salvation.
R: According to the Scriptures we are neither saved by works nor by faith, but we are always saved by grace by God’s mercy. As the Apostle Paul writes to Titus (3:5) “…not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit….” We are not saved by “our” faith, otherwise salvation would again be based on our doing. Rather we are saved by God’s doing when by His mercy He joins Himself to us by His grace. This alone makes us worthy of salvation. Yet faith must be present in order for grace to come. We are saved “by grace through faith.” And as we see in the passage from Titus this faith results in one seeking salvation in the Church (through baptism) by which God’s grace enters into a man’s life: “…He saved us, through the washing of regeneration (baptism) and renewing of the Holy Spirit (gift of the Spirit or Chrismation).
O: But it is essential that we say that salvation comes by faith alone so that we are not led to believe we are saved by works.
R: The Bible never uses the words “faith alone” except to say that we are not saved by faith alone. In the Epistle of James we read: “Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.” There is no other record in the Scriptures that we are saved by faith alone.