A fellow Orthodox Christian asked me to help her respond to an evangelical fundamentalist who is attacking Orthodoxy and promoting the heterodox doctrine of “once saved always saved.” The following is one of my replies to her. Please add any comments and thoughts that might also be helpful to our Orthodox sister.
I commend you for doing an excellent job in defending the truth. These fundamentalist arguments are all too familiar. I was once a fundamentalist myself, so I know exactly where they are coming from. It stems from a combination of two things, one is good and the other is bad:
First, there is the sincere desire to credit God completely for our salvation and to ascribe all glory to Him in the work of redemption. We Orthodox share the same desire, and the writings of the apostles and Church Fathers over the past 2,000 years contains nothing to indicate that we earn our way to heaven. Our entire worship is based upon prayers and Scripture that praise God for His goodness and glory and that entreat Him for His mercy and blessing in our lives- of which we have full confidence.
Second is fear. Fundamentalists cling to a systematic, legalistic/forensic formula of salvation that leads them to believe they have automatic access to heaven regardless of their actions, lifestyle, or behavior. A debt was owed, the penalty was paid, and those that accept this fact by faith are "saved." Subsequently, those who claim to be "saved" are terrified of any Scripture verse or apostolic teaching that reveals the tenuous and untenable doctrine of OSAS. That is why you will notice that fundamentalists are very selective in their Bible quoting. For example, there is the famous "Romans Road," which isolates certain verses from the book of Romans in order to accommodate the false doctrine of OSAS.
We Orthodox however, are not threatened by any portions of Scripture. If fundamentalists quote chapter and verse about "ransom," “atonement," etc., we gladly accede with what the Bible says. But again, it must be emphasized that we have a much more comprehensive view of the Scriptures, and we recognize that the Bible uses many metaphors, typologies, and analogies to convey the message of salvation. For example, consider the parable of the Two Sons (or the Prodigal Son). How was the wayward son "saved"? Was it not solely by the mercy, grace, and forgiveness of his benevolent father? Indeed, this was his only hope. And yet he still had to repent of his sins, arise from the pig slop, and journey back towards his father's home. Surely, this required much effort and struggle on his part. Nowhere did the son feel that he had earned his father’s love and forgiveness, and the father’s celebration for his son was not a meritorious reward. What we see was the pure and unconditional love of the father, a love so great that the son was willing to do whatever he needed in order to receive and experience that love. So, we see that even this simple parable portrays the synergistic cooperation between God and man in the work of salvation.
We Orthodox Christians live in grace, not fear. We do not view salvation as some legal transaction that transpired in a divine courtroom, as something that we can or cannot "lose." Instead, we are concerned with growing closer to God on a daily basis, cultivating an individual and corporate relationship with Him through the sacramental life of His Church. We long for heaven, and yet we know that by grace it is indeed possible for us to experience heaven here and now, on this earth and in this life. In fact, we believe that the Kingdom of God is literally and mystically present every time the Divine Liturgy is celebrated.
Thus, we do not concern ourselves with judging who is "saved" and who isn't. Indeed, we endeavor to fulfill the Great Commission (St. Matt 28:18-20) by spreading the light and love of Christ in and throughout the world. We are authentically “evangelical" in that we labor to share the good news of the Gospel, which is only truly understood in and through the Church of Christ- and this Church is in fact the 2,000 year old apostolic Orthodox Church.
I applaud you for your efforts to accentuate those things that all professing Christians have in common. This is what we should always do. However, we must also be careful not to allow the heterodox to dictate the terms, theologically speaking. I have found that it is best to always establish the proper foundation of authority before engaging in doctrinal discussions. There can never be substantive theological agreement when there is a fundamental difference of foundational authority. The Sola Scripturists reject apostolic Teaching and Tradition, (which is ironically unbiblical), and therefore they selectively quote chapter and verse all day long in order to “prove” their doctrinal positions. So, the best thing to do is simply point out to them that their foundation is flawed. Show them that Sola Scriptura is an unbiblical and manmade doctrine, and that unless they accept the authority of the Church then they will never really understand the Scriptures. Politely decline to discuss any other theological issues with them until they accept the proper Christian authority for doctrine and faith.
Continue to love this person and treat them kindly, but remain steadfast and firm in upholding Orthodox truth. I commend you for your efforts on behalf of Christ and His Church.
Pray for me a sinner.
Peace to you.