The Mystery of Salvation


There is a song I recall from my childhood – sung by John Hartford – in which the operative phrase is, “I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t been there…” It runs the permutations on life’s possibilities. One thing leads to another. It is this connectedness that always seems to trump the power of choice that adds one of the greater mysteries to life. I know that I “chose” to marry my wife – but I did not choose to meet her. That was something more like chance. And, of course, upon reflection, so much that is of great moment in our life has this unchosen quality to it.

It is for this reason that when we speak of salvation, we must always remember to think of the “mystery” of salvation. It certainly may and often does involve choices that people make, but so much of our life is something other than choice. It is not simply that events around me happen unpredictably (as far as I can see) but the inner state that happens to be my heart at the time I encounter any particular event has its own randomness.

An atheist writing in response to one of my recent postings made the comment that had I been born in India I would have been a Hindu rather than a Christian. There is, of course, no way to respond to this. The odds are far and away on his side. However, salvation, at least from an Orthodox Christian perspective, has never been so crude as to assume that the mere accident of birth decreases someone’s chances of salvation. The Gospel Story according to the Orthodox is quite cosmic, and includes the proclamation of the gospel to the departed. Equally, we believe that the grace of God is at work “everywhere” and that though that work may largely be hidden, it is nevertheless dealing with human hearts in lives in ways others may not see this side of judgment day.

And thus it is that we are always confronting the mystery of salvation. It is very difficult or impossible to judge anything at present. It does not mean that we cannot say that murder is a sin (it is) but we cannot know what a good God may do despite such a heinous act. We only know that His love for a murderer is no less than His love for a victim. We know that His will is the salvation of us all (“for He is not willing that any should perish”).

On the personal level of my life – I can know as a believer – that all things are working towards my salvation – that is – all events in my life. The question, of course, is whether I am working towards my salvation. With what meager effort I may make, do I pray, do I fast, do I seek God? Do I revel in the hardness of my own heart or do I bemoan the fact, begging for mercy?

The goodness of God is the assurance that the mystery of salvation is the great mystery that surrounds us all. Even though Scripture speaks of a mystery of evil, we can know that a greater mystery is at work, a greater hand directs events and my life, regardless of its chances, perhaps in spite of its choices, is still the object of a Will to Save. Without that, who would stand a chance?

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



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18 responses to “The Mystery of Salvation”

  1. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    When I consider my trajectory through life I find that I have been given many chances by God’s mercy to act in a way that will further my salvation, most of which I have blown. Yet, He still keeps bringing me those moments, those people and circumstances which will encourage me to love and repent.

    I do not believe in accidents. I do believe that all things work towards good for those who love God. That is not a statement of sentimental fatalism, but simply an acknowledgement of His power and mercy which for some reason He continues to show me despite the hardness of my heart.

    Lord have mercy!

  2. Lyndon Avatar

    I really enjoy your posts. They are always thoughtful and thought-provoking. I appreciate your perspective which is unique in the blogosphere of sameness.

  3. Mark Olson Avatar

    Fr Stephen,
    You write, “The Gospel Story according to the Orthodox is quite cosmic, and includes the proclamation of the gospel to the departed.” I’ve read that idea as expressed by CS Lewis in The Great Divorce. Who (and where) did any Patristic Fathers express the gospel proclaimed to the departed?

  4. Robert Mahoney Avatar

    As a former Calvinist I thank God that I was Orthodox when my mother passed away. I remember standing in the nave on the Sunday morning after the diving liturgy (I got the call on the way to church that my mother had died) and I remember talking with the priest and a few other men saying that I wasn’t so much upset at the fact that she had died as I was in not knowing where she would spend eternity. (I know she will spend it in the presence of God, but it may or may not be a joy for her) and I still remember the comforting words my my priest said, he told me that I had the next 50 years to pray for her.

    That is what I love about the mystery of salvation, it is just that. When I was a Calvinist it was a done deal, when you die either you are saved or you are not. More to the point, if your elect or not its a done deal before you were even born, so if you were not elect than at your death you official screwing began.

    I was told by one Calvinist that I just didn’t understand the holiness of God, if I did than I would realize what justice was and that is exactly what my mother would be getting. I thought about it for a moment and asked him if he would pray for God to have mercy on my mother. He couldn’t bring himself to agree to do so, for the simple fact that he did not believe that salvation is possible after death. I asked him what prevented him from asking for mercy? If God were to me merciful to my mother, would that detract from His glory? Isn’t mercy for those who do not deserve it in the first place? If you do deserve it, than what do you call it since it cannot be called mercy?

    The one thing I love about Orthodoxy is that in regards to the above situation is that its not over until it is over.

  5. Sophocles Avatar

    Father Bless,

    Thank you as always for these posts. I have been posting some entries from the book “Christ in our Midst” which I believe you may enjoy. It would be an honor to have you check out the latest post in this series I am working on.
    If you have read this little book, it’s a collection of letters from a schema-monk to some of his spiritual children.
    Here is the link to the latest:

  6. William Avatar

    Thank you for this. These are beautiful thoughts that have touched me at the end of an unpleasant day in which I have been looking anxiously at others’ trajectories and have not looked toward my own salvation. God bless you.

  7. CaliforniaTeacherGuy Avatar

    This post speaks to my soul, reassuring me that the difficulties I face today, even though many be of my own making, are somehow usable in the hands of the God who loves me. Thank you.

  8. The Scylding Avatar

    Good post – and as you know, I can attest to the truth contained therein. Also to what God uses – a key moment in my spiritual journey out of sectarianism was a TV documentary I saw while housesitting for someone (I did not own a TV myself). It was by Peter Ustinov on the hostory of the Vatican of all things.

    So has my shooting been. And “chance” meetings on the internet through blogs like this.

    God is merciful.

  9. fatherstephen Avatar

    Mark, this is a good question. First, it is taught in the Scriptures (1 Peter 4:6) is quite clear. Some commentators would want to limit that preaching to the preaching mentioned earlier (those who died before Noah), but the general teaching of the Church is broader than that. For good patristic references, I would suggest, The River of Fire, by Kalomiris. It has its weaknesses, and can be too anti-Western, but if you’ll pay attention to his footnotes, you’ll get a good guide through the Eastern Fathers on the subject. The link is River of Fire.

  10. Bosphorus Avatar

    Robert Mahoney reminds me that a Calvinist’s struggle with prayer for the dead is beautifully fictionalized in George MacDonald’s *The Muscian’s Quest”.

  11. Robert Mahoney Avatar

    Thanks Bosphorus, I ordered the book.

  12. Bill Moore Avatar
    Bill Moore

    I’ve spent the last several weeks reading through the archives here, a few a day. I want to thank you, Father Steven, for the charity and graciousness with which you write, even during points of contention. I was brought up in the Mennonite Church (not the horse-n-buggy kind though) and currently worship in the Brethren In Christ branch of the Anabaptist stream. And yet I find much to agree with here in your blog, and much to encourage and challenge. Thank you.

    This topic today touches on something that prompts me to respond (after lurking for so long). About 17 years ago, I was in Florida visiting my beloved grandmother, who was dying. At the time I was a young pastor in the Mennonite church (3 years) and a college grad with a degree in Biblical Studies. My grandma was an unbeliever who had lived long, suffered much, and loved her family deeply. As we sat together on her porch, a few days before she died, she suddenly asked me, “Well, you gonna pray me through to the other side?” And I, I held her hand and responded with, “I can’t do that for you, Gramma.” We didn’t talk any more that day, just sat together. A few days later she was gone.

    I cry now, as I write this again. There are very few things in my life that I’d like to go back and “do over” – but that is one of them. Nothing has influenced my theological thinking more than that one event in my life. It has been at the root of my questioning much of what I thought I knew about God, salvation, judgment and mercy. I am no longer a pastor, and there are days I feel like a very poor sort of believer.

    Whatever the “mystery of salvation” looks like, I pray it includes my grandmother – because of the grace and mercy of God, and in spite of the failings of her grandson.


  13. fatherstephen Avatar

    Bill, I have no dougt that it includes your grandmother – because of the grace and mercy of God. That I may be allowed to assist in someone’s salvation is a great privilege – but that God mercy for someone could be thwarted because of me – I tend to doubt. Pray for your grandmother now and everyday – God alone knows the benefit our prayers have for the departed (the Orthodox teaching is that they are “of benefit”). May her memory be eternal!

  14. Bill Moore Avatar
    Bill Moore

    Thank you again for your gracious words. Reading back over my post, I see I may have given some (minor) wrong impressions. I did not mean to imply that I feared for her loss due to my failures… that God’s will would be thwarted by his servant’s inexperience and weakness. (Though I confess I had to wrestle through that bit of false theology a little at one point.) Rather, I think what I grieve most when I think about that moment with my grandmother is that I missed an opportunity to minister to her, to love her as a pastor should, during her dark hour.

    But God is good, and I do not live under condemnation for that. Sorrow, yes, but not guilt. And I do pray for her, and for others of my family of have died.

    Also, I did not mean to imply that this one event was the cause of my no longer serving as a pastor. THAT story is longer and more complicated, and goes beyond the scope of this posting… 🙂


  15. fatherstephen Avatar


    Thanks for sharing. I’m glad things are as you shared. Family grief can be so complicated sometimes. I remind myself (and others) that the saints pray for us whether we want them to or not (according to the Scripture they pray without ceasing before the throne of God). It comforts me to know that all whom I love have enjoyed such prayers, even when my own failures and misunderstandings stood in my way.

    There is also an Orthodox teaching that speaks of the prayers of others for us (including after our death) as an echo of our life (like ripples on the surface of a lake) and the lives of others. I frequently pray for those who loved me and my prayers are like their love continuing. It’s an image that is sometimes helpful for people who did not grow up praying for the departed or are working at understanding it (and for just plain Orthodox folk who need more understanding of their faith).

  16. […] 2007 Posted by wilken in Uncategorized. trackback Here are 2 wonderful posts by Fr. Stephen on the Mystery of Salvation and More on the Mystery of Salvation […]

  17. Gina Avatar

    It’s also true that few who don’t make a point of looking into such things see Christianity as anything but a European/American phenomenon. If you had been born in India, you might have been a Mar Toma Christian, one of the oldest churches in the world.

  18. Avatar

    Death is but an “entrance gate” into Eternity. It should be look upon as a happy experience for the soul to “return to God” finally from so many years of exile in this vale of tears. As Saint Seraphim said, “Oh joyous death.” The purpose of the goal of any Christian is the “union with Christ”. Once this is accomplished, death is just joyous event for the soul. No more sin, no more worries, no more struggle with passions.

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