But how are we saved?

The undivided Church insisted that we are saved through Jesus Christ, but said little definitively about how. It is strange that, given the fierce debates and divisions of the early Church, the Fathers chose not to focus their attention on how we are saved. Of course, individual Fathers wrote their thoughts from time to time, but the overall attention to the subject is minimal when compared with questions about the person and nature of Christ, the Trinity, the divinity of the Holy Spirit, etc. Yet the western Church has been obsessed with the how of salvation for the past five hundred years.

The Protestant Approach

Protestantism in particular has expended a great deal of energy trying to get salvation right. The key doctrine for Protestants is the doctrine of justification by faith. This was Luther’s great contribution to the life of the Church, what he believed to be the rediscovery of the biblical notion that we are saved not by our works but by our faith–or more accurately, that grace is a free gift mediated to us through faith. All orthodox Christians would agree that the great problem of the human condition is sinfulness, that our sin separates us from God. For the Protestant, the chief remedy for this condition is through faith that Christ’s work on the cross has saved us, without any effort on our part.

Simple enough, right? Except that the second that we accept this understanding of salvation, we’re met with a whole host of new questions. How are we made holy? Do we even need to be made holy? How do we make sense of sin in our lives after our conversion? What is the place of the Church? What about prayer and the sacraments? How do we make sense of biblical passages like James 2 which explicitly indicate that works have a place in our justification?

The way that various Protestant groups have worked out the answers to these questions has varied. For instance, Lutheran theology has tended to view sanctification and holiness as something that happens along with justification, and that the path to sanctification is simply to be reminded of our justification over and over again. On the other hand, Reformed theology has focused on sanctification as union with Christ, brought about through a variety of sources but particularly through the exposition of scripture which renews the mind. One finds a different view amongst Methodists, Pentecostals, Baptists, Mennonites, and even further divergences within these groups as they have splintered from one another over the years. Of course, one can make too much of the differences here. Most of these theologies still hover around the same core conviction, that justification comes through faith alone. Still, the divergence can be dizzying for the student of faith who simply wants to know the truth and live within its light.

The Anglican Approach

Classical Anglicanism is minimalistic about all of this. The 39 Articles are fairly clear on several points: that salvation comes through Christ alone, that justification is by faith alone, that works above and beyond our duty to God do not add to our salvation. These points are further elucidated by the Catechism, which moves from law to grace, assuring the cathecumen that he or she cannot fulfill God’s call to live a holy life by will power. In all of this, Anglicanism is consistently Protestant.

And yet, there is little official mention of sanctification. The articles make positive statements about the sacraments as means of grace, that they are “not only badges and tokens” but “effectual signs of grace” through which God “works invisibly within us” (Article XXV). This certainly implies an ongoing need for sanctification, but it doesn’t spell out why or how such a thing should take place, nor does it relate the topic back to justification. The liturgies of the Prayer Book reveal a similar emphasis, highlighting justification, acknowledging sanctification, but without making explicit how exactly we are to think about the whole thing.

The result of this lack of specification has been that Anglicans have often looked elsewhere for their soteriology. John Henry Newman attempted to harmonize justification by faith with the Council of Trent, which remains the approach of some Anglo-Catholics today, though Newman himself eventually found such an approach lacking. John Wesley, of course, took a unique approach which remains alive in Methodism. A large number of modern Anglicans, particularly in Africa, subscribe to a Pentecostal view. The Lutheran view is espoused by contemporary Anglican Evangelicals like Paul Zahl and Alister McGrath. FitzSimons Allison tends more towards the Reformed approach. Even the Eastern Orthodox view of salvation as theosis has had its Anglican proponents through the ages, most notably Charles Chapman Grafton and Michael Ramsey.

Since Anglicanism has never pronounced definitively on this topic, all of these approaches are acceptable. This doesn’t mean that they’re all correct, but merely that one cannot be deemed outside the bounds of the tradition so long as one holds a plausible rendering of justification by faith and an unswerving conviction in the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as savior. The rest remains unsettled, not because Anglicanism is wishy-washy on this topic, but rather because one of the hallmarks of the Anglican approach to theology is a strong reluctance to say anything definitively that wasn’t said definitively by the early Church. The Anglican Reformers were willing to commit to justification by faith because it seemed to them to be plain in the reading of scripture and not in contradiction with the Fathers. But they were not agreed upon anything more, and to insist upon something that is so clearly unsettled is to invite schism and heresy.

Salvation, the Sacraments, and the Church

I would agree with the Anglican Reformers that an absolute dogma on the topic of sanctification is unwarranted when the Church exists, as she does today, in a state of disunity and disarray. We are all in schism. Novel pronouncements only serve to deepen the divide and further damage the Body of Christ. Nevertheless, there are implications to be drawn from the mind of the undivided Church on this matter. The focus of the Fathers upon the divinity and humanity of Christ is not just about our understanding of who Jesus is but also about our understanding of who we are in relation to Him. The creeds are not explicit about the nature of the atonement, and yet they do insist on belief in “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.” The nature and purpose of the Church was a very important topic for the Fathers, just as it is in scripture. Any orthodox notion of salvation, therefore, must make reference back to the Church as the chief means through which Christ’s work on the cross is realized. We are not saved merely as individuals. We are saved through our participation in Christ’s sacrifice by being drawn up into His Body, the Church, as Paul makes clear in any number of places. Indeed, Romans 6, which is a primary text for Luther and for Calvin, speaks explicitly of the death of the old body so that we might be brought into the new life of Christ. That new life is made manifest in the new Body. “Therefore, my brethren, you also were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ, so that you might be joined to another, to Him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God” (Romans 7:5).

Furthermore, while there is great latitude in how Anglicans may come to understand the sacraments, our formularies make clear that the sacraments are a means of grace and not merely symbols. As such, while we cannot necessarily say much definitively about how salvation works, we can say boldly, with the full backing of scripture and the Fathers, that the sacraments are a chief means by which saving grace is imparted to us. There is a reticence in pan-Anglican conversation to make too much out of the sacraments, for fear that such talk might unsettle those of a low church persuasion. But a firm conviction about the place of the sacraments in salvation does not necessitate a rejection of justification by faith alone, nor does it behold a person to believe in transubstantiation or any other way of understanding how Christ’s presence in the sacraments is actualized. Nevertheless, it does necessitate putting aside the strange and novel idea that Anglicans have ever believed that the sacraments were simply memorialist ordinances that have no value in and of themselves. Classical Anglicanism understood just what the early Church understood, that Baptism and the Eucharist are means by which God gives Himself to us, that we cannot be united to the Body of Christ unless we are incorporated into the Body of Christ, and we cannot be incorporated into the Body of Christ unless we are willing to receive the Body of Christ when it is tangibly, wholly, beautifully offered to us.

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5 Responses to But how are we saved?

  1. Bryan Owen says:

    Thanks for a very interesting and thoughtful posting.

    Building on reflections from a clergy colleague, a while back I posted a blog piece about salvation in which I asked the following questions:

    1. What is necessary for salvation?

    2. What is the meaning of this sentence at the top of page 298 in The Book of Common Prayer: “The bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble”?

    3. Are there certain behaviors or sins which, if committed without repentance, can condemn a baptized Christian to hell? If so, what are those behaviors/sins?

    (Available here: http://creedalchristian.blogspot.com/2008/05/what-is-necessary-for-salvation.html. I also posted this piece over at The Anglican Centrist: http://anglicancentrist5.blogspot.com/2008/05/what-is-necessary-for-salvation.html.)

    While some interesting dialogue ensued, my impression is that, on the whole, these kinds of questions don’t necessarily exercise Episcopalians in the same way as they perhaps do for Christians in other traditions. I could be wrong about that, though.

  2. Fr. Jonathan says:


    The posts you link to are interesting and informative. Thanks for sharing them!

    I think that there is a certain strata of the Episcopal Church where these issues are hotly debated, but it isn’t the majority by any stretch. Salvation is almost a dirty word in certain elite circles. There are many reasons for this, but one of them is that the 1979 BCP is deficient on salvation teaching. Now, I say this as someone who has high regard for the 1979 BCP in some ways. Make no mistake, I’m not one of those folks who believes that the BCP was handed down by Our Lord in 1928 and should be treated accordingly. Nevertheless, the 1979 BCP, in following the lead of the second Vatican Council in the revision of liturgy, changed the flow of our Eucharistic services in such a way so that it no longer moves quite so obviously from the conviction of sin to the preaching of grace. When that happened, along with a minimalization of the 39 Articles and a wholly insufficient restructuring of the Catechism, the centrality of teaching about salvation became displaced.

    To briefly, and thus probably inadequately, answer the questions you pose:

    1. What is necessary for salvation?

    Simple answer: Jesus Christ. Slightly longer answer: God choosing to take the corruption of our sin onto Himself so that we might be freed from it. This is accomplished through Christ’s incarnation and death on the cross. The grace of God is then given to us to the extent that we trust in Jesus and allow Him to save us.

    In any event, I would always want to put the stress on God’s action, rather than on ours. Theories of salvation usually start to fall apart at precisely the point when we start to get too specific about what we have to do with the whole thing.

    2. What is the meaning of this sentence at the top of page 298 in The Book of Common Prayer: “The bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble”?

    The grace that comes to us in Baptism is irrevocable. Through Baptism, we are brought into Christ’s Body and made one with Him. That cannot be undone, any more than two who are made one flesh in marriage can be separated. This does not imply that it’s impossible for a baptized person to apostasize, but rather that grace is given freely to each baptized person, whether they accept it or not.

    3. Are there certain behaviors or sins which, if committed without repentance, can condemn a baptized Christian to hell? If so, what are those behaviors/sins?

    Yes. All of them.

    One finds some small degree of variation amongst classical Anglicans on this point, but in general the classical Anglican position rejects the Roman Catholic Tridentine notion that sin can be categorized mortal or venial. Sin is sin. It is that which separates us from God. I would be willing to grant that there is a difference between sins, in that some separate us faster and more deeply than others. But even a small separation from God is still a separation. If a thirsty man dies five feet away from a bottle of water, is that really any better than dying five miles from it? Hence, the need for grace is great. Fortunately for us, so is the love of God.

  3. Pingback: Responding to Questions About Salvation

  4. Doubting Thomas says:

    I just found your blog–looks like good stuff here.

    Three comments:
    (1) I think justification by ‘faith alone’ is correct if one looks at the issue in the Pauline context in which faith (trust in Christ’s Person and perfect work) is contrasted with the works of the Law (ie which shows our helplessness, as none can perfectly keep this Law and thus obligate God to grant him salvation). This seems to be the sense that our Article XI uses “faith only”, especially given the historical context of reaction to the Medieval Church’s teaching on indulgences, purgatory and superrogatory merit. That this is not a workless faith is addressed in Article XII and (if I recall correctly) the Homily of Justification, thus agreeing with James’s teaching that faith without works is dead and thus cannot ultimately justify. So Paul deals with the work of Christ (apprehended by faith apart from any merit of ours) as the meritorious ground of our justification, while James sees works of love (which follow faith make our faith ‘perfect’) as the criteria by which God discerns a ‘lively faith’ rather than a dead one (ie a mere intellectual assent). In each case God is the One who justifies.

    (2) Sanctification flows from our union with Christ as affected by the Holy Ghost and seems to be mediated (at the very least) by the sacraments (particularly the table of the Lord), prayer, hiding God’s word in our heart, and our ongoing confession/repentance of our sins. This leads to the fruit of the Spirit in our lives, as we humble ourselves before God and he gives “more grace” (James 4:6, 7, 10).

    (3)To me Christ’s Vine/branch illustration (John 15) is a good way to show how both our ongoing justification (ie continued access to Christ’s perfect righteousness) and our progressive sanctification (ie the process of bearing fruit) each depend on our continued abiding in Christ. When we bear fruit we thus demonstrate that God is continuing to both sanctify us and justify us as we show that we are still ‘in Christ’ through faith which works in love.

    Sorry to ramble, but this is an area I’ve often wrestled with in the past few years in my journey from Southern Baptist to traditional Anglican.

  5. Fr. Jonathan says:

    Thomas, your comments are greatly appreciated. And what a blessing that you’ve come to find a home in the tradition of Anglican Christianity. May God continue to bless and guide you.

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