Salvation by Grace and Just Showing Up


There has been a tendency in much teaching about the notion of salvation by grace to ground the image in a legal or forensic metaphor. Thus, we are saved by grace in the sense that someone else’s goodwill and kindness (God’s) has now freed us from the consequences of our actions. Thus we speak of grace as the “free gift” of God.

There is no denying that grace is a free gift and that it is the true means of our salvation. But what if our problem is not to be primarily understood in legal terms? What if that which needs saving about us is not our guilt before the law of God, but the ravages worked within our heart and life from the presence of sin and death? This is probably the point where many discussions about salvation fall apart. If one person has in mind primarily a forensic salvation (I go to heaven, I don’t go to hell), while the other is thinking primarily in terms of an ontological change (I am corrupted and dying and were I to go to heaven I’d still be corrupted and dying). The debate comes down to a question of whether we need a change of status (forensic) or a change within our very heart. Of course, there are varying shades within this debate and I have surely not done justice to the full understanding of either point.

Orthodox theology, has largely been nurtured in the understanding of salvation as a healing of our heart and a transformation of the whole of our life. Others have sometimes referred to these elements as belonging to “sanctification,” but there has never been a distinction between sanctification and justification or salvation within the Eastern Tradition.

It is from within that understanding that my comments on grace are shaped. It is difficult for Christians of any sort in our modern world to grasp what it means to be saved by grace, if grace is indeed the very life of God given to us to transform and transfigure us – to change us into conformity with the image of Christ (Roman 8:29). The difficulty with this understanding is that, unlike a change in status, a transformation is slow work. We do not live in a culture that is particularly patient about anything. The political world thrives on repeated campaigns for “change,” though change is always a relatively slow thing (except in revolutions when it is usually not a change for the better).

There is a saying from the desert fathers: “Stay in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” It is a recognition that stability is an inherent virtue in the spiritual life, and in the constancy and patience of our prayers and labors with God, grace has its perfect work.

In the modern parish setting, particularly with my catechumens, I have translated the desert saying into a more modern statement: “Ninety percent of Orthodoxy is just showing up.” We do not live in cells nor is our stability marked by sitting quiety through the day reciting the Jesus Prayer. There certainly should be times of the day set aside for prayer – but one of the primary locations of our life of grace – as Christians living in the world – is to be found within the life of the parish Church – particularly within its life of sacraments, prayers, and patience (there is equally as much patience to be practiced in the parish as in any monastery). One mark of our struggle for stability is “just showing up.”

The life of grace is central to our existence as Christians and must not become secularized. In a secular understanding, the Church has a role to play in a larger scheme of things (the secular world). Thus the Church becomes useful to me and at the same time takes on a diminished role in my life and in the culture of my life. Secularism is the dominant form of American culture. It is not hostile to Church attendance – but sees it as having a diminished importance. Church becomes just one of many programs in which we may be involved. In some families, choices are made between a child’s participation in a Sunday soccer league and a child’s participation in Church. Adults make similar choices for themselves. But the transformation that is occurring in such choices is the transformation of the Church and the gift of God’s life (grace) into a secular program which exists to meet my religious needs or interests. Such an approach is a contradiction of the life of grace.

Our submission to the salvation of Christ is a submission of our life to the life of grace – a recognition that there is no salvation apart from Christ and the life of grace. In cultural terms, it means a renunciation of the secular life – a life defined by my needs as a consumer within the American experience – and an acceptance of my life as defined by the Cross of Christ. If the Cross is to be taken up with integrity – it must be taken up daily and more often still than that.

The life of grace means that I have given myself to Christ and to the means He has provided for my salvation. I will confess my sins and embrace the life of repentance. I will approach the Cup of His Body and Blood with faith and with trust in His promise of Life. I will be patient as I await His coming to me – as forgiveness – as healing – as transformation from the death of Adam into the Life of Christ. All of which requires that we “show up” – not in the casual sense of the term – but in the sense that we truly struggle to make ourselves available to God.

How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? (Hebrews 2:3)

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.



25 responses to “Salvation by Grace and Just Showing Up”

  1. Reader John Avatar
    Reader John

    Mercifully, I’ve always been a rock-headed one who was nevertheless good at showing up.
    Then when my priest had the Bishop tonsure me, and then placed me at the Cliros, I had even more incentive to show up. Bit by bit, change came.
    So I pressed for the addition of Matins Sunday morning so I could do even more showing up (though our Church is generally of Russian flavor and had been doing Third and Sixth Hours instead of Matins, but without a Saturday Vigil). Bit by bit, change still comes.

  2. Nancy Avatar

    “All of which requires that we ‘show up’ – not in the casual sense of the term – but in the sense that we truly struggle to make ourselves available to God.”

    I appreciate the way you worded this. It is a good paraphrase of “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12) and removes any effort on our part to bring about our own transformation.
    Your blog has been a tremendous encouragement to me in my journey from evangelicalism to Eastern Orthodoxy. My husband and I will be chrismated March 15th. All glory to Jesus Christ!

  3. neil Avatar

    Just showing up…

    I like that. Not that it matters if I like it or not, it rings true, either way. But I like it, partly, because it’s one more piece of wisdom that the AA based 12-step program shares with Orthodoxy or true, rich and full Christianity. Why is that important to me, one might ask? Well, it’s odd and a little funny that I came closer to the Ancient Church in a 12-step program than I did in 34 years of church-going previously. I always called the 12 steps “God’s underground church, because there seemed to be such wisdom that applied to everyone needing the fullness of slavation, not just those with a problem classified as addiction.

    I’m grateful for this post and all the posts I read here that challenge me, encourage me and often confirm suspicions that I’ve held for a long time that there’s more to the Christian life than usually passed on in the West. Someday we’ll hopefully not be able to talk about such distinctions as the East and West, but until then I’ll continue my crawl towards home by showing up. By God’s grace, that is.

    Thanks you.

  4. Canadian Avatar

    One thing I like about Orthodoxy is that you can “show up” nearly 7 days a week for a service. I suppose not all parishes offer that, but the little mission I attend does. Even if I cannot attend most weeknight services, what comfort to know it’s available and occuring nonetheless. The services, in my mind, dwarf the cell group idea so prevalent in evangelicalism. I would rather hear the words of God and his saints than 9 or 10 people share “what the text means to me.”

  5. AR Avatar

    “Struggle to make oneself available to God:” at one time I would have thought that statement demeaning to the Almighty. Odd how it now makes so much sense to me. Salvation has to happen the right way: the way that corresponds to our ultimate end. There’s a sense in which we are always completely vulnerable to God, in which he is always giving us everything. And another in which everything worthwhile must be attained and acquired or it will not be ours in any saving way.

    The human seeks the Divine: one great mystery waits, in hope, for a Greater.

  6. Dave Whalen Avatar

    For me, salvation has always been about Love.
    The three Great theological virtues, Faith, Hope, and Love, but the greatest is love.
    One can understand salvation, even believe the gospel – but it is love that saves. It is our love and charity towards Christ, His Father, and the Spirit, and love towards our neighbors which will make us persevere and will save us. For love receives, accepts, believes, and holds on to God’s grace as more precious to them than anything else in this world.

    This Sunday I witnessed an interesting thing. I attend a Roman Catholic Church that has the Traditional Latin Mass. We have a young woman that also attends who is from Lebanon. Her mother came to visit her here in NOrth Carolina. Her mother is an Orthodox Christian.
    When our priest raised the host during the consecration, we Roman Christians kneel down, but she stood up.
    And she raised hands apart in front of her face and said a prayer or Eastern liturgy and looked up to heaven praising God in her language (might have been Arabic), Then she brought her hands together and began to cry a little and had to wipe her eyes with her kleenex.
    Wow! She knew this wafer had just become the body of Christ and so she knew who she is and who her Lord is, and like the woman who came to Jesus while he was dining at Simon the Pharisees house and wept because she loved much, so did this dear woman.
    Not that we have to cry (unless it is sincere) at Mass, but the point is love. Our love for Christ, the Trinity, our Blessed Mother, and all of the Church.
    There must be a proper understanding of salvation, but not so defined that we categorize it and forget love.
    It is love for God that saves us.


  7. Lucian Avatar

    there has never been a distinction between sanctification and justification or salvation within the Eastern Tradition

    And it couldn’t have been, since there’s no such thing as “JUSTification”. It’s “STRAIGHTening”. And it’s as real on a spiritual level as health-restoration is on a physical one. That’s how I read Romans 4. Too bad no supposedly-traditionless Protestant will agree with me. (WHY !?). With what exactly does this perspective on Paul harm the text? If I remind someone of the fact that not only are we not redeemed by faith “alone”, but, quite on the contrary, this faith is constantly one that works through love, then I’m the bad guy! 🙁 Sorry, Father, just blowing off some steam … on Your blog. Ooops! Sorry! 😀

  8. Jessica Avatar

    Father Stephen,
    Is not our status changed as well? Once we walked in darkness, now we walk in light; once we served the prince of the power of this world, now we have been translated to the kingdom of His Son; once we were slaves to unrighteousness, now we are slaves to righteousness(Col. 1:13, Rom. 6:17,18). I always have understood salvation as a change in status as well as a transformation process and that you cannot have one without the other because there is an “already, not yet” tension in our salvation. In other words it is completely accurate to say that we are redeemed and that we are being redeemed, or that we are God’s children, yet we are becoming God’s children – we are saved, we are being saved, and we will be completely saved someday! I think this is what you are really saying, but we do not use the same terms?
    I am not Orthodox, but I like reading this site because I wanted to understand Orthodoxy and you have helped me to. I have been trying to gain a deeper understanding of what C.S. Lewis calls “mere Christianity, ” or the big picture of Christianity. Many times I believe that we mean the same things, but use different language( and if we could only grasp this we would truly experience the unity of faith we will have in Heaven, here on earth).
    I really do appreciate Orthodoxy’s emphasis on transformation because many Protestant sects overemphasize the “already” aspect of salvation, as in “I made a decision for Christ and am saved’ and then they go on their merry way and never give another thought for Him the rest of their lives. This is a sad extreme.

  9. Karen C Avatar
    Karen C

    And, of course, it all goes back to “We love, because He first loved us.” (1 John 4:19) It is impossible to love God or others from the heart, if we have not first begun to internalize the real meaning of His love for us. I love the way the Eucharist, the Divine Liturgy, the prayers and services of the Church, and the sayings of the Fathers help me to do just that, but I am also struggling with the fact that there is a burden upon leadership to correctly expound the the gospel and to live it out in relationship with others (and cultivate that spirit in their parishes), otherwise eyes may remain blind to what is really being proclaimed in those prayers and Liturgy, and we may hold only to the form of godliness while denying its power.

    For example, my parents attend an evangelical church with several former Orthodox (and Roman Catholics) who never understood the grace of God (as freely given love) within the Orthodox communities in which they grew up and still do not believe that they would find it clearly proclaimed there. Also, growing up I had a next door neighbor who was a Latin Rite Roman Catholic who spurned Vatican II, publicly belittled his Protestant wife, intimidated his kids with his rigidity and strictness, spoke patronizingly and disparagingly about “liberal” Catholics and Protestants, and frequently expressed stereotypical derogatory opinions about members of a particular race. I never saw a better picture of the modern day Pharisee, and I was terrified of offending him! Yet, I believe he saw himself as a truly humble Christian, who “loved” God. No doubt, in some sense he did–it’s just that there was clearly a serious deficiency in his understanding of the meaning of that love. . . . Consequently, my parents are really not predisposed to be open to my Orthodox experience.

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen, for being one of those who so thoughtfully brings to our attention truths that open our eyes more fully to the meaning of God’s grace in the gospel. I truly appreciate your posts.

  10. Dave Whalen Avatar

    How did the Roman Catholic neighbor make your parents not care for the Orthodox faith?
    Just curious because I’m thinking about leaving the Roman Catholic Church and become Orthodox, but because I agree with the emphasis of the Orthodox and did not think they were that identical.

    Is the Roman Church and Eastern Church that much alike?


  11. Dave Whalen Avatar

    I guess, what I mean is that there are always good and bad people mixed in all religions.
    For example, a Mormon could be a great and loving father and husband and great neighbor, but does that mean he knows the Truth that will save his soul?
    And as our Lord taught there will always be wheat and tares in the Church till the end of time.
    So it is Christ we must look at and the Truth of the Gospel. If your parents are looking at what one man did and use that as a judgment not to be Orthodox, then there is a much larger problem there.
    But I do understand what you are saying, that we must love God and our neighbor – because we can turn people off by the way we act.
    However, its never excuse because of free will for someone to reject the Truth based upon another’s actions.
    The Truth of Christ transcends that.

  12. fatherstephen Avatar


    Excellent points. I would add that finally the only reason to be Orthodox is because you believe the truth of the Orthodox faith. It is foundational. And there is much difference between the Orthodox and Rome, at least in significant ways. But you cannot make a comparison as you noted on one individual versus another.

  13. fatherstephen Avatar


    I was taking a generous approach.

  14. fatherstephen Avatar


    I think that there is some sense in which our “status” has changed, but I would not say a status that is forensic or legal. To be translated in the kingdom is not a change of status, but a very true, and ontological change, etc. Of course, each change has a beginning, at which point it can be said to have begun, and thus our “status” has changed. No argument there. So long as the status as a photograph of a moment is not taken to be the entire thing – which is a life transfigured.

  15. Lucian Avatar

    Yes, Father, I know: You are Your usual kind and loving self. And here’s a little sign of my gratitude: 🙂

  16. Karen C Avatar
    Karen C

    Dear Dave,

    My parents’ guardedness vs. Orthodoxy doesn’t have much to do with our RC neighbor (though their guardedness about Roman Catholicism is similar and probably does!), but more with their former Orthodox friends’ experiences. (And also, I might add, with their very real encounter with God’s mercy in their own evangelical tradition.) My point is that even where the faith is most fully liturgically and dogmatically expressed (and perhaps especially here), it is possible like the Pharisees to just understand the forms and still not really “get” what it means to be loved by God as a gift of His mercy–and this has tragic results. Because just like the Pharisees of Jesus day who should have most clearly seen the Messiah when He came totally missed it, we can also totally miss the point of all the forms in Orthodox faith. Jesus told the Pharisees that the Name of God was blasphemed among the Gentiles because of their hypocrisy. Similarly, this has occurred on some level with my fiolks

    This failure is by no means unique to Christians in the Orthodox and RC traditions–far from it! But it is a danger for us all who truly seek to follow Christ.

    Secondly, I affirm from my own experience Fr. Stephen’s comment about reasons to become Orthodox . There is much difference between Rome and Eastern Orthodoxy. Unlike many Eastern Rite and Latin Rite Catholics, who seem to find their way to Orthodoxy from the outside in (in using correctness of Liturgical forms as their guide) I found my way to Orthodoxy because it addressed these underlying differences in how the Atonement and Salvation is understood, i.e., within an ontological framework of union with Christ, rather than that of a juridicial framework of penal substitution.

    Hope this is helpful!

  17. fatherstephen Avatar

    Lucian, thanks for the song!

  18. Dave Whalen Avatar

    Right now I’m at the same point you were at concerning salvation. This, along with the proper jurisdiction of the Pope of Rome, is what is drawing me towards Orthodoxy, along with some other things that I believe the Orthodox are correct on doctrinally and in practice that differs with Rome, which I believe created new things, etc.
    Yes, you have been very helpful.

  19. Karen C Avatar
    Karen C


    My journey to Orthodoxy has been a profoundly healing journey, but certainly not without many equally profound struggles, confusion, and opposition within and without. (That’s part of what clued me in I might really be onto something here! :-)) The enemy puts many obstacles in our way (not the least of which are a few hypocritical brethren and our tendency to be blind to our own hypocrisies), but God is much greater than all that. May Christ have mercy on you as you seek His direction in all things. Meanwhile, I’m going to keep working on “just showing up!”


  20. […] SALVATION by Grace and Just Showing Up …. […]

  21. […] transformation requires “just showing up.”It’s a great post and you can read it HERE .It’s this kind of stuff that attracted me to Orthodoxy in the first […]

  22. Primitive Christianity Avatar

    I have been studying into “ontological justification”, and found this post by a Google search. I am “Anabaptist”, if I dare give myself a “name”, but have been interested in the Orthodox idea of “theosis”, and their view of “justification”. If you could direct me to any early writings on these themes (I have the Ante-nicene Fathers set), I would appreciate it. Thanks! Mike

  23. fatherstephen Avatar

    Athanasius, On the Incarnation would be good. It’s there in Irenaeus as well, just harder to find.

  24. gary Avatar

    Lutherans DO believe that a person can make a Decision for Christ

    Lutherans believe that one CAN make a decision for Christ…but it is AFTER God has saved him!

    We believe that God gives the free gift of salvation without any assistance or even any cooperation of the sinner. In this way salvation really and truly is FREE! God lays the gift of faith and salvation into your “lap” and you believe and repent. We do not believe that there is any decision making in any of these actions. We view the believing and repenting as reflexive REACTIONS. When a doctor strikes your knee with a reflex hammer, your conscious brain is not required to make a decision for your knee to reflexively jerk forward.

    Now that the new Christian has the free gift of salvation, he does have a free will in spiritual matters, where before salvation he did not. The believer can choose to reject Christ, turn from him, and live a life of willful ongoing sin two seconds after his salvation or forty years later…and when he dies he will most likely wake up in hell.

    Lutherans do NOT believe in eternal security. Our salvation in not dependent on how many good deeds we do, but a willful rejection of Christ (eg. converting to Islam or becoming an agnostic or atheist) or choosing to live in ongoing, willful sin, can cause the Holy Spirit to leave a believer as happened with King Saul in the OT. If the Holy Spirit leaves the one time believer, he is no longer saved, if he dies without repenting and returning to Christ, he will go to hell.

    Human beings DO have the opportunity to make a decision for or against Christ AFTER they are saved…they do NOT have the ability to make a decision FOR Christ before they are saved.

    So Lutherans and Baptists/evangelicals actually end up at the same place: a person CAN make a decision for Christ, we just disagree when the decision can occur. It is this point of disagreement that precludes Baptists and many evangelicals from accepting infant baptism. You require a decision before salvation. You are absolutely correct, infants cannot make decisions…but infants can REFLEXIVELY believe and repent, in the same manner an adult reflexively believes and repents, at the moment that God quickens his spiritually dead soul. This quickening and reflexive believing and repenting will ONLY happen to the Elect. This is why Lutherans do not run everyone in the neighborhood through the baptismal waters.

    Luther, Baptists, and Evangelicals

  25. fatherstephen Avatar

    It’s all intellectually interesting.

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