Is There Grace Outside The Church?

Apostles receiving Holy Communion at the Last Supper.

When it comes to any discussion about religion, salvation is one of the more sensitive topics. It is difficult for people to accept that Jesus Christ made an exclusive claim to being God and the only Savior of the world. And it is all the more difficult for those who are Christian (but not Orthodox) to accept that these exclusive claims only apply to the Church Christ established. Can there be salvation outside the Church, or are only Orthodox Christians “saved”?

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

What is Grace?

Before we discuss who can receive the gift of Grace, we first have to define what Grace is. Grace is the Uncreated Divine energy or power of the Holy Trinity, given to us from God the Father, through God the Son, by God the Holy Spirit. Without God’s Grace there is no salvation, no spiritual life, no eternal life. Moreover, Grace bestows different gifts to those who partake of it, depending upon their needs and their openness to receiving Grace. We partake of God’s Grace primarily through the Holy Mysteries (Sacraments) and through the ascetical life (e.g. fasting and prayer).

Additionally, Grace is a gift from God, which includes existence, life, intelligence and salvation. We can do nothing to “earn” this. Rather, God freely bestows it out of His love for His people. According to the teachings of Saint Gregory Palamas, the entire creation partakes of God’s Divine energies, of which there are four types:

  1. Creative Energies (everything in creation partakes of this)
  2. Animating Energies (bestowed upon all living creatures)
  3. Reason-bestowing Energies (reserved for humankind and Angels)
  4. Deifying Energies (bestowed upon Angels and Saints)



Deifying/Sanctifying Grace is the one we refer to in this post.

Who receives God’s deifying Grace?

According to the teachings of Orthodoxy, only Orthodox Christians can receive the deifying Grace of God. Why? We know that Christ is our Savior and our salvation. Therefore, we cannot access salvation without Christ and the Church He established as His Body. Since deifying Grace is what helps us obtain salvation and union with God, it belongs exclusively within Christ’s Body. there is no sanctifying grace outside of Christ and His Body (the Church). The Lord planted His vineyard and placed a hedge around it (Mt. 21:33). There are those who are inside, and those who are outside (1 Cor. 5:12). Those outside do not receive God’s deifying Grace.

Does that mean everyone outside the Church is damned?

Absolutely not! Saint Athanasius the Great, explains that God did not save man through a command or an act of will because man would have simply become as Adam was before the Fall. The grace would have been external, not incorporated into his body. This distinction is the key to understanding how salvation is still possible outside the Church. Saint Diadochos, Bishop of Photiki (5th century), provides a more direct explanation:

Before Holy Baptism, grace encourages the soul toward good from the outside, while Satan lurks in its depths, trying to block all the intellect’s ways of approach to the Divine. But from the moment we are reborn through baptism, the demon is outside, grace within. Thus, whereas before Baptism error ruled the soul, after Baptism Truth rules it.

“On Spiritual Knowledge,” 76, in The Philokalia I, p. 279



Let’s unpack this. We know that during Baptism we are born again and walk in newness of life. Part of this rebirth is the implantation of Grace through the Mystery taking place, and this Grace continues to grow within us through partaking of the Eucharist and other Mysteries within the Church. Grace acts from the inside only within the Body of Christ, the Orthodox Church. The unbaptized are unborn, therefore grace does not act in them from within. However, they can respond to the impulses of the Holy Spirit, Who acts from the outside on all creation. We see beautiful examples of this in all the Old Testament Prophets and Saints. They had not been given the Spirit internally (as Christ had not yet been glorified [c.f. John 7:39]), but they responded to the external impulse of the Spirit upon them.

Conclusion

In conclusion, we leave you with professor Vlassios Pheidas’ summary of the Orthodox position on grace and salvation outside the Church: “Patristic tradition teaches that Christ, through His overall redeeming work, is the Source of Divine grace, and the Holy Spirit is the Bestower and the Operator of Divine grace is the faithful.” He further states that, “the Orthodox tradition, by accepting the Holy Spirit as the Bestower of the Divine grace, which flows from the saving work of Christ, does not recognize the efficacy of the Divine grace outside the canonical boundaries of the Orthodox Church.”

Read More: Receiving The Holy Spirit: Chrismation In The Orthodox Church >>

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11 Responses

  1. Agnes,

    Christ is in our midst! In essence, yes, however the mechanics behind this are not quite so cut and dry. When Eastern Orthodox priests consider receiving someone into the Church, they must know in detail exactly what the convert believes and what he thinks about his previous condition, and whether his conviction corresponds to the facts. Generally, Roman Catholics of the Byzantine Rite are far closer to Orthodoxy in regard to belief, condition, and conviction. Western Rite Roman Catholics are not quite as close, because doctrinally they differ significantly from their Byzantine Rite brethren. Depending on how far one has drifted away from the teachings of the True Faith, that determines the “legality” or “validity” of the baptism and/or chrismation, and thus whether or not re-baptism, chrismation, or confession is necessary before receiving that person into the Church.

    This all, of course, precludes the fact that God can act as He wills. We only know with certainty that Grace can be found within the vineyard of the Church, as Christ has revealed this to us. We hope this answered your question. God bless!

  2. Hey I had an experience which was very typical of the evangelical account of being born again, how does the Orthodox Church classify such an experience? I was baptized Catholic as a baby, put my confidence in Christ in December 2020 and began following and learning more about his word. I was especially drawn to Christian principles that resemble the prosperity gospel, specifically the idea that he is the truth and following him will bring me success. I learned more but continued to sin. In May I had a conversation with my first Christian brother and I told him ( and for the first time began to fully believe) that I believed in Gods providence in trying to protect us from hell, and the role of demons in trying to get us to sin. I also realized how being gay was a sin and a result of too much lust not something you were born with. That night I accepted the way of God, I believed in his commandments, that night I prayed and followed his presence through the distraction of demons and listened as he told me to repent and forgive the people in my life. This led me to feel his prescience come over me and wash away my sins, and get the demons out of my body and area, I felt a grand amount of peace. The next days and weeks were marked by tremendous peace and investigating online. I found a preacher on YouTube (Clevelandstreet preachers; is the channel) who was describing what I had felt, and I decided he was a true Christian that listened to the Holy Spirit. Part 1

  3. Part 2 I believed that true Christians were those with experiences similar to mine. How does the Orthodox Church reconcile my beliefs within the framework of their church? I am lacking fellowship with others who want to do the will of the father and keep his peace within themselves, I find the Orthodox Church does a good job of emphasizing this aspect of the faith, which goes hand in hand with fasting prayer and repentance. But how do I reconcile the born again factor. For me this was the moment I became Christian and the Holy Spirit indwelled in my heart convicting me of sin unknown to me and known. Does this make sense? some clarity would be greatly appreciated

    1. Nico,

      Christ is in our midst! Thank you for sharing your personal experience with us. It is important to remember that God can accomplish His will through whatever means He deems necessary for particular individuals, for them to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4). In other words, He can use any experience in any confession of faith (even non-Christian belief systems) to lead each of us into His One Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. Does that make these belief systems correct? No; however, it kindles that love for God – the True God – whom we all seek.

      The Church will not discount your authentic experience, as it seems to have drawn you closer to Christ and, by extension, to His Church. The Holy Spirit dwelling “within your heart” may not be precisely what happened, as this is what takes place during the Mystery of Baptism. However, it is very likely, and in fact quite probable, that the Holy Spirit convicted you from without and you responded favorably to that influence. While we cannot say for certain, this experience may simply have been the first step in you finding the True Church, asking these sorts of questions, and reconciling yourself with the historic, authentic Body of Christ.

      One last thing, as Orthodox Christians, we, too, believe in being “born again”; however, not in the same manner as most evangelical Christians. This article may help explain our Faith’s position there. We hope this was helpful in answering your question. If you have a follow-up question, please feel free to post a reply. God bless you!

  4. Can only Orthodox Christians who belong to the Orthodox Church be indwelt by the Holy Spirit and have the deifying/sanctifying grace of the Holy Spirit available to them? Perhaps I misunderstand., but it seems to me the wording of this article and its sources state just that. I believe in the indwelling Holy Spirit, and I believe in the Deifying/Sanctifying grace of the Holy Spirit which, with my participation in His will through love, can gradually transform me into the image of Christ and bring me to union with God. However, I cannot accept that this blessing of God’s grace is available only to those Christians within the Orthodox Church. Thank you for taking my questions and comments.

    1. Jacqueline,

      Christ is in our midst. That is correct. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit (and thus, the deifying Grace that the Holy Spirit imparts) is accomplished through the Mystery of Chrismation. You are correct that we can work in synergy with God; however, this is only possible upon having received Baptism and Chrismation, which are Sacramental Mysteries in the life of Christ’s Church through which the Lord accomplishes the transformation and deification of mankind. When we cannot accept something that the Church has always taught, perhaps we should take a deep look at why we cannot accept it, whether that be pride, fear, etc. God bless.

      1. Does the Baptism and Chrismation need to be administered within the Orthodox Church alone? When you indicate the True Church, The Body of Christ, the One and Only Holy Catholic Church, do these refer to the Orthodox Church exclusively? Thank you for bearing with me and for clarifying for me the exact meanings of your statements. I assume your answers are the official beliefs of the Orthodox Church.

        Respectfully,
        Jacqi Wilhite

        1. Jacqueline,

          You would be correct in that assumption: we are indeed communicating the teachings of the Church, not personal opinions or beliefs. When it comes to baptism, if there is any uncertainty or doubt as to water baptism in the name of the Holy Trinity, Orthodox priests err on the side of caution and will baptize the individual. Chrismation, however, is exclusively a Sacrament or Mystery only in the Orthodox Church or Roman Catholic church. Therefore, Chrismation is almost always administered to those entering the Church from another confession of faith. Of course, we are simplifying quite a bit here; if you have further questions, feel free to ask them.

          And yes, all of those terms refer exclusively to the Orthodox Church. God bless!

          1. He is in our midst indeed. Thank God for his mercy!
            Is it correct to say that, according to the teaching of the Orthodox Church, the multitudes of non-Orthodox Christians throughout church history (up until now) who led holy, Christ-like lives and produced godly fruit throughout their lives were able to do so because of the outward influence of the Holy Spirit upon them, not because of His living within them – that the transformation of their lives into the image of Christ and the weight of glory brought to God throughout the earth because of them could be accomplished without the Holy Spirit’s indwelling?

          2. Jacqueline,

            Amen! Essentially, yes, that is correct. God utilizes our circumstances to lead us to Him; and while not all of us will find Him in His fullness (within His Church), we can still come to know Him in some way. It is important to note that the Orthodox Church does not believe that those who are non-Orthodox will not enjoy eternal life or enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Ultimately, that is up to God, as only He knows the hearts of men. God bless!

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