I have entitled this post “Salvation”, which is an intentionally unfortunate thing to do, because “salvation” is really not what this is about. The Orthodox idea of salvation is not easily understood by other flavors of Christendom, what they usually mean is actually “judgment”. To speak of salvation in its larger and more appropriate use tends to cause confusion and indignation among non-Orthodox, so for the purposes of this post I will be talking merely about this idea of judgment as it applies to those attempting to live a Christian life.
I didn’t pick John 5 because I felt that it was the most bold and Biblical passage supporting my point, but merely because it is the one that I was reading through the other night. In addition to the text my comments are also influenced by St. John Chrysostom’s homily on this passage.
Background in the Chapter: Jesus has just incensed the Jews by healing a paralytic on the Sabbath and telling him to pick up his mat and walk. Jesus defends himself by appealing to His heavenly Father, and asserting His (Christ’s) authority. In this context we should be thinking, “What is the role of the Son with the Father?” This is often a frustrating thing to ask since Jesus is always talking about that which the Father and He have in union.
John 5: 21-24
Indeed, just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whomever he wishes. The Father judges no one but has given all judgment to the Son, so that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father. Anyone who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him. Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life.
Of all the things that Christ could mention, He is keen to center His power around the giving of life. This calls to mind another instance of Christ talking about judgment and life; his dialog with Nicodemus in chapter 3. On account of brevity I will only quote one verse (19): “and this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people have loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.”
So with Christ comes judgment, and it is indeed Christ who is the judge of men, and not the Father. Note that this is completely reversed from the idea that Christ stands in the way of the Father exactly judgment on Christians, that somehow Christ appeases the Father or covers people with righteousness so the Father will only “see” Christ. It is not the Father, but Christ who is our judge.
Akin to chapter 3 it is expressed that the judgment is, at least in part, the very action on the part of the people. In this case, either hearing and believing Christ’s word, or not. Somehow our response to the word with either bring us into life, or condemn us to dwell in death. (This section is rather mystical and vague, so let’s step cautiously).
Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For just as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself, and he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. Do not be astonished at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out- those who have done good, to the resurrection of the life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.”
One of the first things that stands out about this passage is that it is in virtue of Christ’ being “the Son of Man” that enables Him to be our judge. He has shared all things with us; He knows us and is a “lover of mankind”.
However, the starkest part of this passage is certainly the end of it. We had previously heard this strange passage about the “hearing of the word”, but now we have a more certain criteria of how we shall be judged. It is by our deeds. Good works correspond to the resurrection of the life, while evil deeds correspond to a resurrection of condemnation.
The anxious mind (read: Luther and his descendants) cannot bear this, how would we know we’re saved? Would we be meriting our way into the Kingdom? We should remember that just because good works are part of the genuine Christian life doesn’t mean that we have to earn it. Forgiving the repentant is still an act of generosity, even if it requires a truly repentant person. It does take work to abide in Christ, to live in a way that can be called “Christian”.
The dead will be raised into life, just as the paralytic was raised from his corruption when he picked up his mat as Christ instructed him.