A Lutheran Celebration of Orthodox Liturgical and Sacramental Spirituality: Some Inquiries About How Much Freedom the Orthodox Tradition Sanctions

In view of Martin Luther’s appreciation of the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox traditions (Luther’s Works, Vol.31, p.81), and the outreach Luther theologians later in the 16th century made to the Ecumenical Patriarch, it should not be surprising that a modern Lutheran theologian would find much to endorse in this thoughtful presentation of the Orthodox heritage.  The liturgical orientation of its spirituality, the stress on the community of saints’ role in nurturing spirituality, and the Sacraments’ role in spiritual formation is right in line with Confessional Lutheran thinking (though Lutheran Pietist elements and Lutheran members reflecting a modernist piety might object).  Indeed Lutherans have a view of the Sacraments virtually identical with the Orthodox heritage (not rejecting the possibility of there being seven [Apology of the The Augsburg Confession, XIII.2]) and are open to venerating and being inspired by saints as long as such activities do not entail earning Indulgences for the faithful (Smalcald Articles, II.22-23,26). 

      The paper did not expressly endorse the concept of theosis as part of Orthodox spirituality, but I wonder if references to being cleansed from all stain, endeavoring to live without sin, and being united with Christ were intended to suggest it.  Thus I ask our esteemed author (David, if I might), if there was a reason for this lack of explicit endorsement of the concept in the paper we are considering?  The endorsement of this concept would raise no problems from the Evangelical Catholic wing of Lutheranism, as Luther himself seems sometimes to have endorsed theosis (Complete Sermons, Vol.4/2, pp.279-280).  And the theme of being united with Christ affirmed in the paper, a theme also typical of Mysticism, is prominent of much Lutheran literature, though not widely known in the pews (Smalcald Articles, III.13;  Apology of  The Augsburg Confession, IV.72 ). 

      Many of the other characteristic Orthodox themes noted have affinities to the Pietist strand of Lutheranism and also in some cases to Lutheranism’s Dogmatic Orthodox strands.  There is place in the Lutheran heritage for something like Orthodox rules of prayer (as long as they are not the basis for salvation (Apology of The Augsburg Confession, XVII.17), the stress on keeping the Commandments (Formula of Concord SD VII; Large Catechism, I.Con), and measuring growth in the Christian life this way (Formula of Concord, SD IV.31-33).  Even the idea of striving for perfection (implied in striving to live in purity and in accord with the process of theosis) is embraced in segments of Lutheran Pietism (Philip Spener, Pia Desideria, 2) and with warnings also the affirmation of a synergistic joining of our will with God’s grace is not rejected (Formula of Concord, SD II.90).  In fact, a 2017 Pew poll and earlier ones on the subject of how we think we are saved found that most Americans, Lutherans included, endorse this synergism.   

      Regarding the “awe-filled harmony with Nature” posited by in the paper, I ask you, Professor Ford (David), whether the Lutheran appreciation that creation reminds us that all we have is from God (another testimony to justification by faith alone [Large Catechism, II]) harmonizes at this point with Orthodox spirituality.  Given the appreciation of flexibility noted in the Orthodox heritage, I raise the big Lutheran question, asking how free we can be in the Orthodox church, whether characteristic Lutheran emphases could have a legitimate place and if not, why not?  Could an Orthodox Christian legitimately embrace with Luther and Paul a commitment to the centrality of justification by faith and prevenient grace (the belief that grace precedes any synergistic cooperation), even giving the Holy Spirit credit for our faith and for the surrender of the will to God (Romans 3:21-28; Galatians 3:10-14; Luther’s Works, Vo.26, p.106; Small CatechismII.6)? 

      I have the impression that you, David, seem to concede that the Orthodox heritage embraces something like the Lutheran simul iustus et peccator – the belief that we are simultaneously saints and sinners (Romans  7:14-18; Luther’s Works, Vol.32, p.111; Ibid., Vol.27, p.230).  Though I would not expect to receive affirmative answers, would it then be possible to concede with the first Reformer that the best we can do in the Christian life is sin bravely – for we sin in all we do (1 Timothy 1:13; Luther’s Works., Vol.48, pp.281-282)?  How about freedom from the Law (Galatians 3:13; 5:1; Romans 7:4ff; Luther’s Works, Vol.31, pp.333-377), the spontaneity of good works (Ephesians 2:10; Luther’s Works, Vol.31, pp.367-368; Complete Sermons, Vol.1/2, p.316), and a Situational Ethic (Genesis 22; Luther’s Works, Vol.5, p.150; Complete Sermons, Vol.3/1, p.61)?  If these are not affirmations which the Orthodox tradition can embrace, I’ll bet we could learn a lot about both of our traditions if together we could figure out why not.       

     The helpful presentation of the Orthodox heritage put before us envisages a role for Bible study which certainly resonates with Lutheran Pietism.  But given my amateur’s knowledge of the Orthodox tradition, I was not surprised that no reference is made in the paper to the role of preaching in enhancing the following of Jesus (Augsburg Confession, XXVIII.8-9), the Priesthood of All Believers (Luther’s Works, Vol.20, pp.82,95; Ibid., Vol.35, pp.40-41,100-101), and to how following Jesus includes a social concern about justice for the poor (Ibid., Vol.9, p.19;  Large Catechism, I.7; Amos 8:4ff.).  Are there reasons why the Orthodox heritage has not made much of these convictions?  Would it be possible given Orthodox flexibility/freedom for members of the Church to follow Jesus in these ways?  Is Orthodox-Lutheran convergence about following Jesus possible?           

The Living Faith of the Dead vs. the Dead Faith of the Living

As people who like to talk about new birth, new life, and the church and world made new, we Pietists set ourselves up to undervalue what’s old. That’s particularly true of Pietism’s Radical wing, which experimented with a dizzying array of innovations in Christian belief, practice, and community in the 18th century. But even those of us who inherit the “churchly” Pietism of Lutheran pastors Philipp Jakob Spener and August Hermann Francke might rebel against the idea that we participate in a “tradition,” since we’d likely mistake it for what historian Jaroslav Pelikan called traditionalism, the “dead faith of the living.”

““Let anyone who is thirsty come to me,” said Jesus, “and let the one who believes in me drink” (John 7:37). But Pietists have inherited their German founders’ concern that “the rivers of living water” flowing from the believer’s heart (v 38) can dry up over time, until all that’s left in a Christian community is the husk of a faith.

That’s how Spener and his followers grieved the state of their own churches in the late 17th century, and a similar ethos runs through later Pietist attempts at church renewal in places like 19th century Scandinavia. The first Pietists were worried about the “dead orthodoxy” of post-Reformation Protestantism, but I suspect they’d have the same concern about (Eastern) Orthodoxy as David Ford described it in our opening essay. As a corrective to my own tradition, I’m grateful for his discussion of the importance of the “liturgical/sacramental life of the Church,” but I have to admit that Pietists would nonetheless worry that the Orthodox way of following Christ — built around “time-honored prayers” and “designated” patterns — risks substituting rote formalism for a more authentic, life-changing piety centered on a personal relationship with Jesus.

(That notion of “personal relationship with Jesus” might, I grant, just be one more example of a problem that Ford noted in his follow-up comment on his essay: the “growing over-emphasis on Jesus’s humanity in Western Christianity…”)

For better and (too often) for worse, spiritual forebears of mine like the Swedish revivalist C.O. Rosenius have hardwired into the Pietist tradition a distinction between “formalists – those who enjoy only the name, the semblance, the shell – and pietists, or those who seek and own the thing itself, the reality, the kernel.” Rosenius would echo Ford’s concern for living in holiness — “rejecting deleterious thoughts and feelings (called logismoi) that disrupt our relationship with Jesus” — but then insist that it’s not the “formalist” but “the pietist… who not only reads, hears and understands holiness, but also owns this in daily experience and evidence.”

But Orthodoxy, as Ford presents it, can instead exemplify the power of tradition as Jaroslav Pelikan defined it: “the living faith of the dead.”

Surely part of what drew that great scholar from Lutheranism to Orthodoxy is the latter’s “remarkable consistency” of millennia-old beliefs and practices, particularly “the majesty and beauty of the communal worship of God.”

I’m even more certain that Pelikan would underline the word “communal.”

In his book Jesus Through the Centuries, Pelikan only addresses Pietism once: as a Protestant example of Christian mysticism, near the end of a chapter that begins with John Wesley’s “Jesus, Lover of my soul.” Pelikan attributes that hymn’s inspiration to Nikolaus von Zinzendorf, the Pietist-educated founder of the Moravian Church, who liked to describe Jesus as “bridegroom of the soul.” I might add that “bride-mysticism” remained a popular theme for Pietist women like the 19th century Scandinavian hymn writers Lina Sandell and Berte Kanutte Aarflot. (See Gracia Grindal’s chapter in The Pietist Impulse in Christianity — Pickwick, 2011.)

Those Pietists’ emphasis on spiritual union with Christ suggests an intriguing affinity with what Ford calls the Orthodox yearning “to live in ever-closer, direct communion with” Jesus. However, Pelikan mentions Pietism not to underscore its connections to earlier traditions, but as an example of emerging Western “individualism.”

Even in its least mystical forms, Pietism has tended to conceive of “following Jesus” in personal and private terms, rather than as a collective, public experience. We Pietists can learn much from the Orthodox tradition, in which union with Christ is experienced through “vibrant communion/fellowship with His Saints—the living, the departed, and in a very special way, the glorified.” Furthermore, while Pietists, like many other Protestants, tend to approach the written word of God as if they’re the first to do so — and are sometimes suspicious of giving too much authority to clergy, Ford emphasizes that the Orthodox read the Bible with the words of Church Fathers and Ecumenical Councils as guides, under “the spiritual direction of one’s spiritual father.”

Finally, to the extent that Pietists have emphasized Christian community beyond the conventicle, it has sometimes tended towards insularity and parochialism. That’s particularly true as the Pietist tradition has come to this country, via the experience of immigrant populations whose churches and schools helped to preserve Old World language and culture against the relentless forces of Americanization. Now, I’ve seen firsthand in the Twin Cities how the Orthodox way of following Jesus still helps Egyptian, Ethiopian, Greek, Russian, Ukrainian, and other immigrants to sustain their cultural distinctiveness. But it’s also clear that those Christians participate in a wider tradition, part of what Dr. Ford calls a “countless people of every social, political, and economic background in every era, in a great number of cultures.”

That’s a way of following Jesus that would surely warm the heart of Rosenius, who claimed that a Pietist “does not belong to any country on earth,” nor “to any specific church denomination, but instead constitutes one of those limbs that can be found in all Christian churches which belong to the one, holy, universal church” — a family tree that no doubt includes Orthodoxy.

On a Tradition Brimming with Confidence, Spiritual Rootage, and Personal Moral Striving

As a Baptist, I find that David Ford’s description of the Orthodox path of following Jesus takes me into largely unfamiliar territory. But that unfamiliarity is welcome. I am determined to learn from it, even as I find myself resisting certain aspects of it. I certainly see major potential correctives here for common patterns in Baptist life.

Professor Ford’s description of the Orthodox tradition rings with high confidence as to its divine inspiration, divine confirmation, historical continuity, and moral productivity. In a time of fading Christian self-confidence, with many notable examples of such among Baptists, I find this Orthodox confidence highly inspiring.

I do wonder whether that confidence, reinforced by centuries of tradition and belief in tradition’s divine inspiration, leaves the Orthodox sufficiently open to the occasional historical reconsideration. I believe in semper reformanda — the church always reforming. I would hope to see Baptists grow in confidence in our version of Christian tradition without losing the ability to change our minds sometimes.

It was interesting to see that Dr. Ford’s description of how the Orthodox follow Jesus was not narrowly confined to the moral arena. In essence, we were treated to a lovely description of an entire way of life, including public worship, home worship, iconography, spiritual direction, prayer, and more. This offers a great reminder that if (as is true, I think) many of us Baptists understand “following Jesus” to be primarily living in a certain morally serious way in the world, that way requires the deepest spiritual sourcing, which is thinning out in many parts of Baptist life. No roots, no fruits. The Orthodox understand this, and provide for it.

I was surprised at the morally perfectionistic notes in Professor Ford’s description of the Orthodox path. The goal, he says, is to move toward a sin-free life, with ever greater faithfulness, fervency, holiness, fruitfulness, moral purity, trust in God, commandment-keeping, surrender of will, virtue, and self-sacrificing service. I found none of the (typically Protestant, and quite common among Baptists) emphasis on the limits of Christian moral capacity and the need to live primarily in gratitude for divine forgiveness — rather than focusing on effortful moral striving.

The problems with focusing on effortful moral striving can include what has been called scrupulosity, an excessively active and mordant conscience and, on the flip side, a tendency toward spiritual pride for those who think they are actually making moral progress.

But the problem with focusing mainly on Christian moral limits and the need for forgiveness can be a relaxing of moral effort and adoption of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer unforgettably and accurately called “cheap grace.” The Baptist world that I know seems much more vulnerable to cheap grace than to scrupulosity.

Finally, I admit to being distressed to see no social-ethical or social-justice dimension in Dr. Ford’s essay other than a welcome mention of living in harmony with Nature and celebrating the goodness of God’s creation. (Also: a traditional posture on marriage.) As a Baptist Christian social ethicist, I cannot conceive of “following Jesus” apart from substantial attention to social justice, social ethics, and social change. On the other hand, sometimes all that some of us Baptists seem to understand of discipleship these days is a social change agenda, either conservative or liberal.

I am deeply grateful for this occasion to encounter Eastern Orthodox thought, and to Dr. Ford for getting our conversation started with such a lovely, lyrical first essay.

Holiness and Sin

The tradition that I represent in this dialogue had its beginning in the Evangelical Revival in England during the 18th century. The stream of Methodism that has survived and flourished since then was guided initially by John and Charles Wesley. As a relatively “new” tradition, it would not appear at first that Wesleyan Methodism would have much in common with the Orthodox. Although not much is known about how he encountered these ideas, John Wesley valued what he called the “primitive church,” and he refers to several early church fathers in his writing. Some have recognized similarities in theology and spirituality (see Orthodox and Wesleyan Spirituality, edited by S T Kimbrough Jr., St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002). I begin this response with appreciation for similarities that I see in David Ford’s description of following Jesus in the Orthodox Tradition and the Wesleys’ vision for Methodist followers of Jesus.

Although Wesleyan Methodists do not identify and canonize saints, the description of saints as “faithfully, fervently, and fully liv[ing] in vibrant communion with our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ” beautifully expresses the goal of Christian holiness that John Wesley had in mind. For him, every follower of Jesus should seek to have–expressed by Wesleyan Methodists in the language of Paul–“the mind of Christ.” As Ford observes, not every follower reaches the same degree of fervent faithfulness as the saints, but all may be inspired to live more faithfully. The Wesleyan Methodist movement was originally organized in groups (societies, classes, bands) where followers of Jesus were supported and accountable to others in this endeavor.

John Wesley’s understanding of holiness bears similarity to many elements named by Ford. Wesley called people to pursue holiness of heart and life. Holiness of heart refers to the inner effort to align one’s will with the mind of Christ so that sin does not rule our lives.  Holiness of life expresses the fruit of this alignment both in service to other human beings and in the proper use and enjoyment of God’s creation. Holiness in both these respects is formed and assisted by a disciplined use of the “means of grace.”

Wesley encouraged regular use of “means of grace” for spiritual growth. “Means of grace” (activities that help us experience the power and the presence of God) refers especially, but is not limited, to prayer, searching Scripture, and receiving the Lord’s Supper. As priests in the Church of England, the Wesley brothers valued, used, and recommended all the resources of their Church. After colonial North American Methodists were divided from the Church of England through the War of Independence against England, John Wesley abridged and edited the Book of Common Prayer for their use in the newly forming United States. The resources for Orthodox and Wesleyans are not identical (for instance Wesleyan Methodists do not typically use icons), but it is clear both traditions have riches to be employed for following Jesus.

Even as those historic resources have great importance, Wesleyan Methodist worship does make room for innovation. In the Wesleys’ time, Methodists used not only formal prayers in the Book of Common Prayer, but also extemporaneous prayer. Charles Wesley composed thousands of new hymns for the use of Methodists when they gathered for preaching services and for their own private devotion. In our time creativity is highly valued, so even though there are official worship resources, there is no fixed, shared form of worship that all Wesleyan Methodists use.  In fact, our worship practices are so varied that I would be hard pressed to quote, as Ford does, a prayer apart from the Lord’s Prayer that everyone would know and pray. The Orthodox posting indicates how important shared formation in worship can be for preparing people to follow Jesus. While I would not want to give up entirely freedom and variety, it may be that recovering more common elements might be helpful.

Although Wesleyan Methodists share with Orthodox a desire and effort to “live without sin in thought word and deed,” my own tradition has had to wrestle with the extent to which one could be “sinless.” John Wesley believed it was within God’s power to cleanse us from sin by perfecting us in love, but he was confronted with some in his time who claimed sinlessness to the point of infallibility. I would be very interested to know more about how completely the Orthodox think sin can be eliminated as we follow Jesus.

Today, many in the Wesleyan Methodist tradition are taking seriously the idea that sin may not be only a matter of the will in individuals, but may also be expressed in oppressive systems that need to be confronted and changed. This may be a point of disagreement unless there are ways of talking about sin in the Orthodox Tradition that were not able to be included in the posting.

Another more recent question about sin arises with regard to the way Ford expresses sexual purity, with a definition of marriage that rules out same sex relationship. Although the understanding Ford states would have been historically assumed, at this point in time the Wesleyan Methodist tradition is quite divided over how to think about the way LGBTQ+ persons may follow Jesus. On this point, some would agree with the Orthodox and others would not.

What can God Redeem?

What can God Redeem?


It’s fortunate that this ambitious ecumenical conversation begins with David Ford’s contribution from the Orthodox tradition.  In my view, the Reformed family has paid the least attention to the Orthodox among the major Christian traditions.  But we probably have the most to learn from the Orthodox, as well as from the Pentecostal expressions of the church.  Beginning with the Orthodox seems right.  A true Reformed person might even say that it’s providential.

First, I’ll identify points of disagreement, at least from my perspective as one from the Reformed tradition; others of course will see it differently.  Reformed theological antennae go up immediately at the mention of the Virgin Mary and the saints.  The differences in understanding the role of Mary need little elaboration.  But it’s the Orthodox appeal to follow the lives of saints, and the process of holiness which they are seen to achieve, that tends to raise the hackles of Calvinists.

Whenever a tradition appeals to the example of how “holy” people have become, Reformed folk squirm.   Our beginning point is total depravity.  And when someone thinks he or she is making great progress being liberated from its effects, we tend to see this as another sign of total depravity.  Therefore, looking to those who have become so purified and holy as examples strikes Reformed people as dangerous and deceptive.  We don’t follow Jesus by following others.  We follow Jesus by following Jesus.

Most Reformed folk have little understanding of how deeply the Orthodox tradition believes in the potential transforming power of holiness.  I was once privileged to be on an ecumenical visit to the Ecumenical Orthodox Patriarchate in Istanbul (formerly Constantinople).  We had lunch with His Holiness Bartholomew I, the Ecumenical Patriarch, and then visited St. George’s Church.  An Orthodox priest explained all that it holds, including relics and the coffins, enclosed in glass, of certain saints.  As he directed our gaze to one saint, he assured us that if that coffin were opened, it would emit the sweet smell of flowers—I think he said roses—because the result of his holiness and sanctification had transformed not just his spirit, but also his physical body.

A solid Reformed view would regard that as incomprehensible, bordering on a form of heresy.  But to the Orthodox, physicality is intended to be fused with spirituality, and transformed in the process.   Such a wedding of spirituality united to the essence of matter and physical life, experienced this side of eternity, always makes the Reformed mind nervous.  The effects of sin and the Fall are far too pervasive and should never be underestimated.

David Ford’s helpful explanation of the Orthodox tradition retains an almost exclusive focus on the practices of personal spiritual devotion and participation in the Liturgy and Eucharist as the pathways for following Jesus.  While having a different view of the sacraments, Reformed perspectives would respect the appeal to prayer and the devotional life, while being circumspect, as just noted, about its potential effects.  However, the Reformed tradition takes very seriously what is often called a “world and life view.”  It holds that Christian faith beckons us to seek justice in the world, and the transformation of institutions—education, labor, government, health, etc.—to reflect the values of God’s kingdom.

Beyond doubt, within the diversity of the global Reformed community, its understanding and witness around the causes of justice take many different forms.  But one only need to look at the agenda and programs of the World Communion of Reformed Churches, the global body encompassing the vast majority of Reformed and Presbyterian denominations in the world, to see the unrelenting, consistent commitment to addressing economic injustice, gender injustice, violence against women, the destruction of God’s creation, the marginalization and historic genocide of indigenous peoples, pervasive racism, and much else, all calling for a Christian response if we are to faithfully follow Jesus.

Even with differences about the particulars between various Reformed voices, this prophetic dimension of the gospel finds a firm foundation within this tradition.  But such an unambiguous witness is far more difficult to locate within Orthodoxy.  Understandably, it is notably absent in David Ford’s presentation.  The reasons are complex.  In part, the affirmation of specific cultures in Orthodoxy’s approach can lead to forms of religious nationalism which obviate the space for prophetic witness.  The Orthodox tradition is embodied in national churches—the Russian Orthodox Church, the Romanian Orthodox Church, the Serbian Orthodox Church, etc.  A largely uncritical alliance between church and state can often result.

Of course, we can note exceptions.  We see these, for example, in the Oriental Orthodox Churches, consisting of Orthodox Churches primarily in Africa, the Middle East, Armenia, and India, which split from the other “Eastern” Orthodox Churches in 451 at the Council of Chalcedon.  Yes, the Orthodox have long memories.  Most Oriental Orthodox Churches are in a minority position within their settings, often suffering marginalization and in some cases persecution.   Yet, Reformed voices would say that throughout most of the Orthodox Churches, despite differing relationships to the established power of their nations, the Bible’s prophetic critique of corporate sin and the thirst for God’s desired justice in the world seems blurred.

One area, however, is strikingly different in the public witness of the Orthodox tradition—the commitment to care for and preserve the gift of God’s creation.  And that commitment could not be timelier; and it can enrich those in the Reformed tradition.  Like so much else in the Orthodox tradition, a bedrock theological foundation undergirds this commitment.  This is found, not so much in the doctrine of God as the Creator, but in the understanding of God’s work of redemption in Jesus Christ.  For the Orthodox, this always has a cosmic dimension.

The Orthodox tradition believes that all of material creation is open to being transfigured and redeemed.  This is rooted in the incarnation and grounded in the death and resurrection of Christ.  This redeeming work of God is not focused solely on humanity but embraces the whole cosmos.  New Testament references to the “cosmic Christ” underscore this understanding.  This stands in contrast to most traditional Reformed understandings of redemption, which focus on humanity’s fall into sin and the opportunity for personal redemption offered through Christ.  The creation is simply the stage on which this redemptive drama takes place, and not a subject of it.

In my personal theological journey, I discovered the powerful impact of the Orthodox understanding of incarnation and redemption in a direct way.  In the 1980’s, my wife and I moved to Missoula, Montana, and my attention was drawn to the environmental crisis.  To my dismay, I found hardly any theological approaches from evangelical and mainline Protestantism to understand the threats to God’s creation and undergird a well-grounded biblical witness.  But the Orthodox tradition was illuminating and immensely helpful.  The Human Presence, a small book by Orthodox theologian Paulos Mar Gregorios, who later became one of the Presidents of the World Council of Churches, first unlocked an understanding of the incarnation and redemption which encompassed the whole created order, and humanity’s role within it.  As Gregorios states, “Human redemption is inseparable from the redemption of time and space as well as ‘things.’” A book which I subsequently wrote, A Worldly Spirituality: The Call to Take Care of the Earth was indebted to such theological understandings.

When I joined the staff of the World Council of Churches a few years later, with a responsibility to gather ecumenical commitment around “the integrity of creation,” the contribution of Orthodox voices to that process was indispensable.  This ancient tradition, rooted in rich and weighty theological reflections of the Church “Fathers,” proved to be far ahead of its time, and so relevant to our time with the earth in an existential crisis.  His Holiness Bartholomew I, the Ecumenical Patriarch, is a global leader defending the environment, often called the “Green Bishop.”  Today, rich theological resources and practical actions to preserve the integrity of God’s creation are found throughout Protestant and Catholic circles.  But the Orthodox were the theological pioneers here, and their cosmic understanding of the incarnation and redemption still have much to teach the Reformed tradition.

Those Orthodox perspectives extend to “theosis,” the bold Orthodox teaching that our unity with God means that in following Christ, we can participate in God’s nature.  This is also called deification.   It holds forth the radical promise that as we are perfected in grace, selfishness and ego can nearly disappear as we empty ourselves and come to reflect Divine light.  I still remember that disparaging comments of my theology professor at a Reformed seminary about such views.  But today I’m convinced that the Reformed tradition, so thoroughly immersed in the pervasive grip of total depravity on the human soul, has much to learn, and self-correct, from Orthodox understandings which don’t compromise on the potential effects in this life of our calling, reflected in Scripture, to participate and partake in Divine life, reaching to redeem all things.

Wesley Granberg-Michaelson

What it means to follow Jesus in the Orthodox tradition

Due to space limitations, I can only offer here a glimpse into the profound and boundless glory of what it means to follow Jesus in the Orthodox tradition—a path of belief and practice that’s been followed with remarkable consistency by millions of Orthodox Christians through twenty centuries.  The spirituality, doctrines, liturgical life, and the conciliar/hierarchical structure of the Orthodox Church have remained unchanged at their core, beginning in the Apostolic age, with more “rings” of amplification and enrichment being added to the same “tree” through the centuries.

So in the Orthodox understanding, the way to follow Jesus that’s been faithfully passed down to us is a truly time-tested, proven path.  More importantly, it’s a path that’s God-inspired and God-directed, confirmed through the prayer—and all the spiritual experience—of countless people of every social, political, and economic background in every era, in a great number of cultures.  Yet within the guidelines provided by the Orthodox Tradition for how to follow Jesus, there is flexibility for each person to do so uniquely, depending upon one’s unique needs and abilities.

Christians who are recognized as premier examples of this way of life are the Virgin Mary and the Saints—those men, women, and children who most faithfully, fervently, and fully lived in vibrant communion with our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ, many of whom gave their lives for Him in martyrdom.  Numerous Saints are commemorated in our Church every day of the year—the day we particularly honor them, asking for their prayers and being inspired by the holiness and fruitfulness of their lives.

Of course, not every Orthodox Christian follows Jesus with the same degree of faithfulness, fervency, holiness, and fruitfulness as the canonized Saints have done.  But there is, nevertheless, one basic way of following Him that is the ideal, the hope and expectation for every Orthodox Christian—the path of aspiring to live in ever-closer, direct communion with Him; being filled with His Love, Joy (John 15:11), and Peace (John 14:27); striving to live in purity of thought, word, and deed; and ever trusting in His limitless mercy in anticipation of His Second Coming (Rev. 22:20), the Resurrection of the Dead, the Last Judgment, and eternal life in Heaven, our true home (Phil. 3:20-21; cf. Phil. 3:7-14).

For this endeavor, the Orthodox Church provides many resources for spiritual growth, including daily study of the Holy Scriptures, being guided by the Church’s long-standing interpretation of them; time-honored prayers for many occasions; rich liturgical life, replete with psalmody, and including hymns filled with devotion and sound doctrine; the Sacraments—especially the Eucharist, celebrated at every Divine Liturgy, and the Sacrament of Confession; celebration of the many great holy days (Feasts) of the Church Year; the writings of the Church Fathers; the Lives of the Saints; the doctrinal proclamations and canons of the Ecumenical Councils—especially the Nicene Creed; veneration of the Holy Icons; the sign of the Cross; the connection with one’s Patron Saint and Guardian Angel; and the spiritual direction of one’s spiritual father.

Even the great numbers of monastics through the centuries, who have, generally speaking, most entirely given their lives to following Jesus in direct service to Him and His Church, do not follow Him in a way that’s substantially different from how everyone else follows Him in our Tradition—except that, most likely, they pray, fast, and attend services more, and live more simply than the rest of us!  And, of course, they live in sexual abstinence, while the married enjoy their God-given marital relations.  But in both cases, we’re called to live in sexual purity—total abstinence for the monastics, and total faithfulness to one’s spouse for the married (with marriage understood as between one man and one woman, mirroring Christ the Bridegroom’s love for His Bride, the Church – Eph. 5:23-32).

To say a bit more about particular features of the Orthodox way of following Jesus:

Worshiping Him “in Spirit and in Truth” (John 4:24)—participating regularly in the prayer-filled and Scripture-filled liturgical/sacramental life of the Church; entering with humility and awe into the majesty and beauty of the communal worship of God in church services; participating in the alternating rhythms of feasting and fasting according to the patterns designated in the Church Year.

Being in vibrant communion/fellowship with His Saints—the living, the departed, and in a very special way, the glorified (those canonized by the Church as Saints): “God is wondrous in His Saints” (Ps. 67:36, Septuagint); “I believe in . . . the Communion of Saints” (the Apostles’ Creed); “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1; Heb. 12:23); being surrounded by the Saints in their grace-bearing icons (“windows to Heaven”) in Church and at home (particularly in the icon corner); asking for their prayers; reading their Lives and their writings.

Endeavoring to live without sin in thought, word, and deed, in purity in mind, soul, and body, including sexual purity (Matt. 5:48, Heb. 12:14, 1 Thess. 4:3, 1 Peter 1:15-16, Lev. 11:44-45).  Growing in communion with Jesus is accomplished in large measure through keeping His commandments (John 15:10; also 15:14 and 14:15).  And we remember that avoiding sin requires careful attentiveness to the voice of our conscience, ongoing ascetical effort to control and properly direct our passions, and repenting for our sins.  We endeavor to be watchful over our thoughts and feelings, trying to be quick in rejecting deleterious thoughts and feelings (called logismoi) that disrupt our relationship with Jesus.

Endeavoring to surrender our own will to His will (Luke 22:42); this includes surrendering our own will appropriately as we self-sacrificially serve others, placing their needs and desires ahead of our own.

Endeavoring to maintain our trust in Christ no matter what happens—no matter what cross He may ask us to bear in terms of personal hardships and the hardships of those close to us (Matt. 16:24; Luke 9:23).  We offer our hardships, sufferings, and sorrows to Him, linking them with His suffering on the Cross, knowing that He often allows them as a means for us to grow in faith and trust in Him, and for us to grow in virtue (James 1:2-4, Romans 5:3-4, 1 Peter 1:6-9).  Yet we also pray to Christ for deliverance from afflictions, mindful that miracles often happen, but always concluding with asking that His will be done.

Endeavoring to maintain a regular rule of prayer, developed and sustained, ideally, under the guidance of a spiritual father/director (often the priest of one’s parish), before whom one confesses one’s sins to God regularly in the Sacrament of Confession, and from whom one receives spiritual counsel during that Sacrament; praying, as appropriate, the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” (this has been—and still is—the principal devotional prayer of the Orthodox for many centuries; cf. Luke 18:13); and being alert in spiritual warfare (James 4:7), ever aware of the possibility of demonic delusion (2 Cor. 11:14; 1 Peter 5:8).

Endeavoring to be engaged in self-sacrificial service to one’s fellow human beings, with deep respect, love, and compassion for each one, all “made in the image and likeness of God” (cf. Gal. 6:2; Romans 12:15).

Endeavoring to live in respectful, awe-filled harmony with Nature; seeing everywhere our Creator’s miraculous craftsmanship and providential care; understanding that the innate goodness of Creation undergirds our entire sacramental world-view; being always thankful for, yet not being overly attached to, the good things of this world.

Witnessing to others about Christ and the glory and richness of life in His Holy Church, especially through living an exemplary life of faith and virtue—through the holiness, quiet joy, and peacefulness of our Christ-filled lives; and through inviting people to Church services.

Every endeavor to follow Jesus more closely is accomplished through synergistically joining our will with His will (Phil. 2:12-13), and with the grace of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19).

Key elements of the Orthodox ethos and way of life are conveyed in the prayers normally prayed in preparation for receiving Holy Communion.  For example, from the Prayer of St. Basil the Great (Archbishop of Neocaesarea, central Asia Minor; later 4th century):

“Receive me, O Lord Who loves mankind, as You received the sinful woman, the thief, the publican, and the prodigal son.  Take away the heavy burden of my sins, O You Who takes away the sins of the world, and heals our infirmities, and calls to Yourself all who are weary and heavy-laden and gives them rest.  O You Who came not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance, cleanse me from all stain of body and soul, and teach me to fulfill holiness in reverent fear of You, so that with the witness of my conscience pure, I may receive a portion of Your Holy Gifts, and be united to Your holy Body and precious Blood, and may have You, with Your Father and Your Holy Spirit, dwelling and abiding in me.”