(Full disclosure: I am getting ready to write a short section on this topic in the book I'm working on, as part of the last chapter. This is not necessarily anything like the text of that section, however. There, I will not directly be dealing with any views but Orthodox ones.)
An important question, for many people, is whether man can in any way cooperate in his own salvation.
Part of how we answer that question will of course depend upon what salvation is. For example, does it include what the non-Orthodox call “sanctification”? Is it a merit system?
For the Orthodox, yes, it includes roughly what others mean by “sanctification” and no, salvation is not a merit system. That means merit is not what saves us and demerits are not what condemn us. Thus salvation neither can be nor needs to be merited at all. Not only we ourselves cannot and need not merit it, but even Christ cannot and need not earn or merit it for us, either, for salvation is pure gift. We would consider it a slur upon God’s magnanimity to suppose otherwise.
Even if the right exercise of free will were meritorious, so what? Merit does not save us. We are saved by union with God in Christ. Rather, union with Christ does not get us into heaven; it already is heaven, for Christ Himself is our heaven. Union with Christ is not a means to an end (His merits getting us to that end); for anybody who loves Christ, union with Him already is the goal. And union with Christ is not by merit, but by grace through faith.
Similarly, demerits are not what condemn us. Separation from God condemns us – or rather, separation from Him does not send us to hell but already is hell, for in Him is everything good and true and beautiful – and we are separated from God because we walk away from Him, not because of our failure to collect merits (although, having rejected God, we do fail in that, too).
That’s why the Orthodox don’t worry whether the right exercise of our free will might imply we had done something meritorious. In the first place, to use our free will rightly is what we were made for, the same way a fish was made to swim or a bird to fly; and we get no more "merit" for doing what we were made for than they do. Secondly, even if we did gain some merit by making the right choice, what would the merit be FOR? It has no more use than Monopoly money; it's strictly for playing games.
Those, and only those, who implicitly assume salvation is about merit will feel the need to avoid assigning us any, in order to give God all the glory. They are right that we have none. But then they go on seeking to avoid assigning us any merit by denying that we are able to cooperate in our salvation in any way. They tell us fallen man’s “free will” is able only to choose evil, meaning it is not actually free at all. The natural man can only resist God, and actively does so.
From an Orthodox point of view, this teaching appropriates several rather egregious misunderstandings of Scripture, but that subject is for another post, as are about four or five serious theological objections to it. For now, I’d just like to point out that except in Calvinism, this doctrine of free will does not seem to accomplish what it sets out to do.
How, in this model, is anyone saved? Well, as I understand it (If I’m mistaken, somebody please correct me!), when people hear the Gospel rightly preached, the Holy Spirit, working through the Gospel, overrides the resistance of some of them – it isn’t clear to me which ones or why not all of them – and bestows upon them the ability to receive the gift of faith and to choose Christ. In Calvinism, this grace once given is irresistible, but in other traditions such as Lutheranism, one can – take note! – one can either accept or reject it. And upon that choice depends ones salvation. In other words, man had something to do with his own salvation after all. That’s why, besides being objectionable upon several serious grounds (stay tuned) this doctrine, from an outsider's perspecive, appears simply pointless.
Thursday, October 25, 2007