More on the Mystery of Salvation


I am almost always caught off guard by the number of readers an article on very simple (from an Orthodox point of view) matter of our salvation seems to generate. I forget that the treasury of doctrine that we live in is not part of the daily treasure that others know. I find tremendous comfort, particularly in everything taught by the Orthodox Church regarding our salvation. It is probably my favorite topic. This is largely because it came as an answer to questions I had that were utterly and completely unsatisfactorily dealt with elsewhere.  I have created a page on this blog with the teaching of Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev of Austria on the topic of Christ Descent into Hades, which necessarily involves talking about our salvation within an Orthodox understanding. I cannot recommend it too highly. And it’s only a click away! I have published here but a small paragraph in which he writes briefly on the Orthodox interpretation of St. Paul’s mention of predestination. There are no accidents, but our choices do play a role in our relationship with God and others. I commend this small post and urge you to read his entire article.

In the history of Christianity an idea has repeatedly arisen that God predestines some people for salvation and others to perdition. This idea, based as it is on the literary understanding of the words of St. Paul about predestination, calling and justification [35], became the corner-stone of the theological system of the Reformation, preached with particular consistency by John Calvin [36]. Eleven centuries before Calvin, the Eastern Christian tradition in the person of John Chrysostom expressed its view of predestination and calling. ‘Why are not all saved?’ Chrysostom asks. ‘Because… not only the call [of God] but also the will of those called is the cause of their salvation. This call is not coercive or forcible. Every one was called, but not all followed the call’ [37]. Later Fathers, including Maximus and John Damascene, spoke in the same spirit. According to their teaching, it is not God who saves some while ruining others, but some people follow the call of God to salvation while others do not. It is not God who leads some from hell while leaving others behind, but some people wish while others do not wish to believe in Him.

The teaching of the Eastern Church Fathers on the descent of Christ into Hades can be summed up in the following points:

1)      the doctrine of the descent of Christ into Hades was commonly accepted and indisputable;

2)      the descent into Hades was perceived as an event of universal significance, though some authors limited the range of those saved by Christ to a particular category of the dead;

3)      the descent of Christ into Hades and His resurrection were viewed as the accomplishment of the ‘economy’ of Christ the Saviour, as the crown and outcome of the feat He performed for the salvation of people;

4)      the teaching on the victory of Christ over the devil, hell and death was finally articulated and asserted;

5)      the theme of the descent into Hades began to be viewed in its mystical dimension, as the prototype of the resurrection of the human soul.


[35] Rom. 8:29¾30.

[36] See John Calvin, Instruction in Christian Faith, V. II, Book III (‘Concerning the pre-eternal election whereby God predestined some for salvation while others for condemnation’).

[37] 16th Discourse on the Epistle to the Romans.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.






27 responses to “More on the Mystery of Salvation”

  1. Jonathan Avatar

    Beautiful, Father.

  2. Wonders for Oyarsa Avatar

    I own this icon, though I’d always heard it referred to as “The Resurrection of Christ.” Is there a separate icon for this?

  3. fatherstephen Avatar

    It goes by both names – probably because we don’t make much distinction between the events in Orthodoxy. The Troparion of Pascha says, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.” You’ll notice that most of the resurrection is defined precisely by his destruction of death and hell and freeing us from its bonds.

    The Christ standing up from the tomb is a very late, Western painting, though I’ve seen iconic forms of it in Orthodox Churches (probably from Western influence). I strongly prefer the other.

  4. Robert Mahoney Avatar

    One of the teachings of Calvin that finally put a nail in my protestant coffin was on the issue of falling away.

    As a Calvinist we taught that we are totally depraved, that there is nothing in us to even cause us to desire God. If we are going to be saved, God has to do it all. He chose us, we didn’t chose him. Are salvation is secure in that it is God who is in us causing us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. So, if salvation is God’s work, if the only reason we do anything that is good is because God has caused us to do it, then why do some (Like myself in my reformed friends eyes) fall away?

    Calvin’s answer was simple, I was saved, but because I wasn’t grateful for it, God just turned me over to myself and let me harden my own heart towards Him and his Gospel.

    So, why does God blame me for not being grateful? After all, if Calvinism is true, I am a totally depraved sinner who has no desire for god to begin with. God had to quicken my soul on His own because if He had to wait for me to seek Him I never would. The only reason I even did anything that was God was because God caused me to do it.

    If the only reason I did anything good was because God caused me, then why didn’t God cause me to be grateful? I thought God chose us apart from anything good or evil we might do? Why does God choose me to be saved apart from any good works and then turn right around and hand me back over to myself for the crime of being ungrateful when it wasn’t in my power to do so?

    Again, that is why I am so grateful I discovered Orthodox Christianity. If I hadn’t, I honestly believe I would have just became a deist.

  5. Fatherstephen Avatar

    I am by no means an expert on Calvinism so I cannot comment at length – but the kinds of difficulties you describe are similar to others. Obviously we are not saved apart from God, and yet there is a role I must play in response. One of the reasons I prefer Bishop Hilarion’s article is that it tends to avoid the over philosophizing that can be done on these matters, in which we’ve parsed our salvation into absurdity. The Gospel is a story, best told as a story, best expressed in a variety of metaphors, and not reduced to careful philosopical/theological statements, no one of which ever does justice to the fullness of our salvation, the goodness of God, etc. Some Christian “traditions” in the general sense of the word, seem to need to “say” everything, and this is a weakness. Much of salvation is indeed a mystery which must be wondered at, accepted, lived, shared, rejoiced in, even when we cannot state it precisely.

    If someone were to ask me to explain how it is that I came to love my wife (whom I love beyond words) what could I say. What words could I use that would do justice and not reduce the reality to something that it is not. What makes people think that our relationship with God through Christ should be more easily explained than that? Christians have made more trouble for themselves by their much defining. The Orthodox Church, traditionally, considered Ecumenical Councils to be occasionally necessary, but to be avoided when possible. That’s why we’ve only ever had seven (though there were many others that were no regarded as ecumenical and some that were regarded as just plain heretical). Too many Christians talk, talk, talk, or think, think, think, when they should pray, pray, pray.

  6. Steve Avatar

    Please pray for me. I’m having a rough day.

  7. Mimi Avatar

    Father, bless,

    Thank you for this short summary, and great words of St. John Chrystostom.

  8. fatherstephen Avatar


    May God give you strength.

  9. T Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    When time permits, and at your convenience, could you email me privately at the address I entered with this post? I have a quick question regarding reference material.

    Thank you Fr. Stephen!

    God Bless!


  10. Death Bredon Avatar

    Providentially, since the 1950’s the West is slowly rediscovering the “Christus Victor” exegesis of Atonement and the Ireneaous’ correlative Recapitulation doctrine.

    Still, one typical is taught in one’s youth that Christ died to satisfy the Father’s honor or wrath (????) cause by Adam’s sin, which is imputed to us (??????), and that Christ’s sacrifice of his perfect humanity is a quid pro quo sin offering (Temple Judaism/Druidism ??????) balancing out our personal sins (which I we are not done committing ?????). Indeed, “Christ died for your sins,” is the Western Slogan. And, it makes no sense or is a revolting idea.

    Providentially, I actually read the Anaphora of St. Basil (because one never hears it in an Orthodox service) and realized that the ancient and authentic Christian doctrine of Atonement is Representative Triumph over Death (and thereby concupiscence ) for those unite to or “in Christ” (theosis or deification or true sanctification).

    Though Slogan-Christianity might be crass, IMHO, the Orthodox need to take a page on propaganda from the Protestants push the slogans: (1) “Be a Christian, Be Immortal, Be All that You Can Be,” (2) “Christ Conquers Death and Disease and Decay,” and “+Die with Christ, Rise Forever+.” Of course, the there is the trusty old Pachal Trope, but its hard to fit that on a bumper sticker! Maybe set the Trope to various contemporary tunes (Metal, Punk, Praise, Rap, Grunge, Adult Contemporary, Classical, etc.) and air it on appropriate radio stations.

  11. Fatherstephen Avatar

    There are, interesting, an increasing number of Orthodox contempoary musicians who are trying to do that very thing.

  12. mrh Avatar

    >>> Indeed, “Christ died for your sins,” is the Western Slogan. And, it makes no sense or is a revolting idea. <<<

    That old westerner Paul seemed to think it was “of first importance” when he preached to the Corinthians: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures,” (1 Cor 15:3).

  13. cp Avatar

    “IMHO, the Orthodox need to take a page on propaganda from the Protestants push the slogans …”

    Been there, done that – delighted to be away from it. This Orthodox Christian will pass on the slogans, thanks.

  14. Andrew Avatar


    MRH is right, ‘Christ died for your sins’ is decisively Pauline, and it is ‘of first importance’. The fulness of the Apostolic preaching must be kept inviolate, and yes, that includes atonement and propitiation.

  15. Death Bredon Avatar


    Paul is of course correct and my tongue was firmly in my cheek. But, preached in a specific context and he instructed us to consider context too. In contemporary America, the truth that Christ died for our sins has been pounded in an unbalanced and distorted way. Orthodox teaching regarding salvation/atonement (the real Gospel) is the perfect antidote, but it is so often hidden and neglected in Orthodox witness.

    So many Westerns only think of ethnicity, incense, long beards, a different date for Easter, and maybe even the “filioque,” when they think of Orthodoxy, if at all. This is so tragic when the true beauty and grace of Orthodoxy lies in none of those things! It doesn’t even lie in the beauty of the ultimate Eastern Rite (St. Basil’s — used in one some recension by virtually all the Oriental Churches), which only allows the priest to mutter the core doctrine that distinguishes the East from the tragic errors of the West.

  16. AR Avatar

    Today we visited an Orthodox church for the second time. In the words of one of my teachers, we seek “relief from the trivialization of the sacred.” I hope that those contemporary musicians you mention will be anathematized or at least firmly booted down the front steps of this ancient church.

    I’ve always felt that the gospel of the evangelicals was reduced almost beyond recognition, not to mention presented in usually blasphemous ways. However, in embracing a larger, more mystical view of the gospel I would want it to be more, not different from, what I learned from the great divines like Jonathan Edwards. Does Orthodoxy retain a conviction that Christ’s death was among other things a sin-offering, and that when we fail God in our relationship with him our forgiveness is based on Christ’s atonement for our sins? I know you don’t want to get in a rationalist argument but I really need this settled. A mystical answer will suffice as long as it doesn’t actually cut out this aspect of the gospel.

    Finally is Pan-Orthodox doctrine fairly consistent or does the “structural unity” hide “doctrinal disunity” as one my friends suggested?

    Once again, thanks for your time.

  17. mrh Avatar

    “I hope that those contemporary musicians you mention will be anathematized…”

    It is not actually a crime to be contemporary – many of the greatest musicians of the past were contemporary at the time they did their best work.

    “Does Orthodoxy retain a conviction that Christ’s death was among other things a sin-offering, and that when we fail God in our relationship with him our forgiveness is based on Christ’s atonement for our sins?”

    At every Divine Liturgy the priest quotes our Lord as saying “Take, eat, this is my Body which is broken for you FOR THE FORGIVENESS OF SINS… Drink of [this] all of you; this is my Blood of the new Covenant which is shed for you and for many FOR THE FORGIVENESS OF SINS.” The phrase “for the forgiveness” is emphasized here more than the gospel text requires, since in none of the gospels does Jesus actually include that phrase with the breaking of the bread. The phrase appears only in Matthew and there only in connection with the cup. What we pray, we believe: Jesus Christ died for the forgiveness of sins.

    But you use this particular word “atonement”. That is a problematic word. It has a complicated history in English and as a translation from Greek. When people use this word they often have some very precise ideas about exactly HOW Christ’s death was “for” the forgiveness of sins. If you are tied to some particular detailed explication of atonement that dates back less than five hundred years or so, you are unlikely to find that understanding reflected in Orthodox thought.

    “Finally is Pan-Orthodox doctrine fairly consistent or does the “structural unity” hide “doctrinal disunity” as one my friends suggested?”

    From what I’ve observed, such doctrinal disagreements as exist in Orthodoxy are very minor and cut across jurisdictional lines.

  18. AR Avatar

    No, contemporaneity is not the crime. I was referring to “the ones mentioned” because they are using pop music as settings for sacred texts and that’s blasphemous. It’s also a crying shame in the sense that this kind of revolting juxtaposition has already destroyed most American religious sensibilities and I would be very sad if these last bastions of ancient liturgy went the same way. Every era has serious music and pop music. I’ll go for serious contemporary music, such as Tavener and Arvo Part. (Part is Orthodox himself.)

    Thanks for your answers, mrh. I need to read some books but that’s a starter. No, I was looking for the explanation of what the Orthodox mean by “for the forgiveness of sins” irrespective of whether or not I’m tied to something. Perhaps I shouldn’t have emphasized my dilemma, as I don’t wan’t that to influence the discussion.

  19. fatherstephen Avatar


    Christ’s death and resurrection certainly atones for our sins, reconciles us to the Father – read St. Basil’s Liturgy – it probably is the fullest statement of this in Orthodoxy. But there is no reconciliation with the Father apart from the death of His Son.

    Contemporary music will not have any particular affect on the liturgical music of the Orthodox Church.

    There is no doctrinal disunity in Orthodoxy. Where there are disagreements they are not about substance. There is one faith.

  20. fatherstephen Avatar


    I might add, that frequently when approaching Orthodoxy there can be a fear that something very vital to our relationship with God might be sacrificed if we were suddenly in a more mystical, non-Western setting. My experience is that this usually just isn’t the case. St. Augustine is an Orthodox saint (for example). Generally, if something is true, you’ll find it upheld in Orthodox writiers. St. John Chrysostom is probably one of the most down to earth commentators on Scripture that I can think of.

    It’s also true that there are a variety of things at work in modern Orthodox publishing. Everything from a sort of “self-discovery” in which Orthodox scholarship is paying more attention to historical Orthodox scholarship and not just trying to answer various Western issues. Sometimes this can become hyper-critical of the West but not in the best of Orthodox writing. It’s also true that Orthodox scholarship in English is still very young. By far the vast majority of Orthodox material is not to be found in English.

    When I first started reading St. Gregory Palamas (in the 70’s) you either had to make your way through Byzantine Greek, or read him in French. Otherwise you could only read secondary sources. And he is a very important Orthodox father.

    I think we’re still very far away from having good material on St. Maximus the Confessor – at least I haven’t been able to make much headway with what’s available.

    And the list goes on. But Orthodoxy is deeply rich. I dare say that you cannot list a Scriptural image (for instance on the atonement) that does not have a place within Orthodox writings, hymns, etc. It’s just too rich.

    What you generally will not find is a simplification of what cannot be simplified. As good as Edwards was, he is simply poverty (not by any personal fault) when held up to the richness of the Orthodox faith. Read him, but by what measure could he be a touchstone?

  21. Andrew Avatar


    Sorry. My mistake.


    I think you may be confusing Pärt with Tavener. Tavener is Orthodox (although, for the life of me I can’t figure out what that whole ’99 names of Allah’ business is), but I don’t think Pärt is.

  22. AR Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    The things you mention are the very things that draw us to Orthodoxy.

    I will do the reading you suggest, thank you.

  23. Death Bredon Avatar

    In Orthodox thought, Christ’s conquest of Death (which is sin writ large) is the only the means to our individual conquering of sin (missing the mark). Hence, Christ’s crucifixion is not quite a quid-pro-quo sin offering of the Old Testament, which is only a type, but is the more dynamic anti-type. Indeed, individuals still have to claim the victory over death and sin by cooperating with grace and entering into and growing in Christ. Progress, not perfection (Gregory of Nyssa). And when the kingdom comes, only then will those in Christ (sanctified) truly overcome concupiscence once and for all. In the mean time, we will still be conscience of sin, even among the great Saints.

    Orthodox do dispute Ecclisiology quite a bit and we have always been plagued by a small, vocal Latinophrone minority, which claim that Orthodox doctrine and Roman Catholic doctrine are identical save contemporary recognition of Papal Inffalibity.

    I think Arvo Part is a convert to Orthodoxy as is Tavener. Both are odd birds, which is par for the course for Artistes.

  24. fatherstephen Avatar

    Small note: I agree that Part is Orthodox. I do know that he frequently makes pilgrimage to St. John the Baptist Monastery in Essex. I spoke to one of the monks about him. I asked, “Do you discuss music with him?” He said, “No, we talk about God.” 🙂

  25. Gina Avatar

    >>Finally is Pan-Orthodox doctrine fairly consistent or does the “structural unity” hide “doctrinal disunity” as one my friends suggested?<<

    If anything I think your friend has got it backwards, or perhaps, reading the magisterium in to the phrase “structural unity,” he is lumping Orthodoxy in with Catholicism.

  26. AR Avatar

    Thank you, everyone, for your help.
    That story about Part is breathtaking.

  27. Yvonne Avatar

    It appears from the quote above that Christ says that the sacraments are for the forgiveness of sins.

    And atonement means, “to make at one with”. It all depends on how you view these words and concepts.

    I am glad Orthodoxy emphasises that it is a Mystery – something that cannot be apprehended by reason alone. As Khalil Gibran, a Maronite Christian, said:

    “Faith is an oasis in the heart which can never be reached by the caravan of thinking”

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