Like non-Orthodox, Orthodox believe that salvation culminates in the attainment of eternal life in God. The path to this attainment in the Orthodox view, is one of purification and ascetical effort on the believer's behalf, cooperating with the grace of God (synergia), keeping in mind that nothing unclean can enter the Kingdom of God (Ephesians 5:5, Revelation 21:27). Entrance into the Kingdom "necessarily requires purity of soul, a garment of holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14)"1. This is in contrast to what Orthodox see as an overly juridical understanding of salvation in the west, which - Orthodox hold - is contrary to the beliefs held by the Church Fathers.
A more concise definition is offered by Monk Damascene, Abbot of the American Orthodox Monastery of St. Herman in Platina, California: "The Orthodox Church takes a maximalist approach to salvation, seeing it as a process which ends in deification (theosis)"2. Quoting a contemporary at St. Tikhon's Seminary, Harry Boosalis, Fr. Damascene writes:
For the Orthodox Church, salvation is more than the pardon of sins and
transgressions. It is more than being justified or acquitted for
offenses committed against God. According to Orthodox teaching,
salvation certainly includes forgiveness and justification, but is by
no means limited to them. For the Fathers of the Church salvation is
the acquisition of the Grace of the Holy Spirit. To be saved is to be
sanctified and to participate in the life of God - indeed to become
partakers of the Divine Nature (2 Peter 1:4)3
There are quite a few criticisms leveled at these views. Some will maintain that Orthodox are confusing salvation with sanctification. Others have basically accused the Orthodox Church of pelagianism - a 5th century heresy (fought viciously by Augustine) that minimized the role of God's grace in one's salvation. I think, however, that the root of almost all disagreements with Orthodox soteriology come from having a completely different understanding of grace, free will, and the consequences of man's fall.
Grace, in the Orthodox understanding, is not something that is created or dispensed by God, but is essentially the energy of God - to borrow a term used by Gregory Palamas. It is not, again in the Orthodox understanding, something that is turned on and off or given and withdrawn by God, but is something that is always present. The degree to which man experiences God's grace depends on his spiritual state and how disposed he is or is not to cooperate with it. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God (Matthew 5:3) comes close to summarizing this view in a single Bible verse.
The above puts the fall of man in the Garden in a distinct light. Whereas western Christianity (Roman Catholicism and most Protestant confessions) hold to a doctrine of "original sin" as a guilt that was inherited for Adam's offense, the east understands this sin not in terms of guilt but of illness. Western confessions generally hold that the effect of Adam's fall was the withdrawal of God's grace, whereas Orthodoxy holds that the effect of Adam's fall was serious impairment to his ability to experience God's grace. These are perhaps subtle distinctions, but when extrapolated lead (I think) to understanding salvation either in terms of restitution or in terms of rehabilitation.
It is interesting to note in this context that the root of the Greek word for "salvation" (sōtēria) is the verb σωζω (sōzō), which is usually translated as "save", but is also the word meaning "heal" (e.g. If I may touch but his clothes, I shall be healed - Mark 5:28).
"Justification" and "righteousness" are signified by the same word in Greek - δικαιοσύνη (dikaiosynē). The verb form (e.g. Luke 18:14) can mean "to justify" or "to make righteous". This can be interpreted in a legal sense, as is favored in most western exegesis (e.g. someone is "made right with the law", "justice", etc.), but it can also refer to an existential change.
This distinction was pointed out by the recently reposed Orthodox writer, (Bishop) Dmitry Royster of Dallas:
The terms "just" (Greek dikaios) and "justified" (dikaioō) are
obviously related terms, the first usually being translated as
"righteous" and sometimes as "just", and the second as "justify"; a
third related word dikaiosynē is most often translated as
"righteousness". There exists a problem among interpreters,
especially our contemporaries, concerning the relationship among these
three: most reject the possibility of translating the verb dikaioō
as "to make righteous", using rather "to justify", and doing so in a
juridical sense, that is, as of being acquitted of guilt before God's
Bishop Dmitry goes on to explain well (I think) the difference between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox understanding of "justification":
It is a fundamental tenet of the faith that any righteousness or
justification of a man is the fruit of God's grace poured out on him
by the work of Jesus Christ, which culminates in the sacrifice of the
Cross and Resurrection (2 Corinthians 1:9-10; Philippians 3:9-10).
This granting of grace is the work of the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 5:9).
Misunderstanding seems to arise from opposing God's act of justifying
or "rendering a man righteous" to the attainment of righteousness (1
John 3:7) by the man of faith. A man or a woman is not a passive
recipient of God's grace; his or her response to God's gift is the
"doing" of good works. As the Apostle points out to the Ephesians
(2:8), we have been saved (His part) by faith (our part); we have
become a new creation (2:10) specifically for good works.5
This is not to say that a juridical interpretation of "justify" is not entirely warranted, but the Orthodox understanding is not that one is declared righteous, but rather that one becomes righteous by the grace of God. There is nonetheless a tie-in to the juridical interpretation, in that we (according to Orthodox belief) will be judged according to our works. This seems clear in the Orthodox understanding of such Scriptures as the Last Judgement description by Christ (Matthew 25:36-41), as well as Scriptures such as found in Revelation (20:12):
And the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works.
(See also Psalm 62:12, Job 34:11, Matthew 16:27, Romans 2:6, Revelation 22:12)
Some of the above makes Orthodoxy a hard sell for other Christians. The constant awareness of one's sinfulness and the compulsion to continually "do" something about it does not sit well with other Christian faiths. What is misunderstood about Orthodoxy is that this asceticism is not for God's benefit - i.e. it is not a "work" to earn salvation. But it is, rather, a work for one's own benefit - something intended to instill humility and spiritual poverty (cf Matthew 5:3) that forces one to abandon the wisdom of the world (1 Corinthians 3:9) and turn toward God, eventually relying on His grace and not one's own strength. That turning - and perhaps repeated re-turning - toward God is understood within Orthodoxy to be the true meaning of μετάνοια, or repentance.
1. Michael Pomazanski, Orthodox Dogmatic Theology (3rd ed.), p.199
3. Ibid., p.199n
4. St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans: A Pastoral Commentary, p.58