Is there grace outside the Church?

This post is an excerpt from The Heavenly Banquet: Understanding the Divine Liturgy

Is God’s grace received only by members of the Church or can there be grace outside the Church? Are only Orthodox Christians saved? Before we address these questions, let us explain briefly 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. The Holy Trinity always acts in creation through a common action. Without God’s grace there is no salvation, no spiritual life, no eternal life. Although grace is simple and one, it bestows different gifts to those who partake of it, depending upon the need of each one, and upon one’s degree of receptivity. We partake of God’s grace primarily, though not exclusively, through the Holy Mysteries (Sacraments), especially through Baptism and Holy Communion, and through the ascetical life, primarily prayer.1

Grace is God’s gift to man, which includes existence, life, intelligence and salvation. According to the teachings of St. Gregory Palamas, the entire creation partakes of God’s divine energies. Everything partakes of God’s creative energy (inanimate objects). Certain beings partake also of God’s animating energies (living creatures). Furthermore certain beings partake of God’s reason-bestowing energies (intelligent beings, men and angels). Finally, “only those among the angels who kept their rank, and those among men who returned to the supernatural dignity given from above to the intelligent beings partake also of God’s deifying energy and grace”2 (saints and angels). This last grace is the grace of which we speak here. Is this saving, sanctifying and deifying grace found outside the Church?

According to the teachings of the Orthodox Church we obtain God’s grace only in the Church, for outside the Church, the Body of Christ, there is no sanctifying grace. Sanctifying or saving grace, the grace through which we obtain salvation or union with God, is found only in the ark of salvation, the holy Church, the theanthropic Body of Christ, because Christ is our Savior and our salvation. The position of the Church has been stated once for all through St. Cyprian of Carthage:

“Extra ecclesiam nulla salus—There is no salvation outside the Church.”3

Is then everyone outside the boundaries of the Orthodox Church damned? Not at all. In explaining, however, how can this be possible, certain theologians have given an answer incompatible with the belief in the uniqueness and oneness of the Church, with devastating consequences.4

The Orthodox position has been expressed by St. Athanasios the Great who, in explaining why God did not save man through a command or an act of will, says He did not act this way, because, although He would have demonstrated His power, man would have become as Adam was before the Fall. The grace he would have received would have been external and not incorporated into his body.5 This distinction, external-internal, is the key to understanding how salvation is possible outside the Church. St. Diadochos, Bishop of Photiki (fifth century), who draws from St. Athanasios, 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 that we are reborn through baptism, the demon is outside, grace is within. Thus, whereas before Baptism error ruled the soul, after baptism truth rules it.”6

This terminology offers us the correct solution to this thorny problem. Grace acts from the inside only within the Body of Christ, the Orthodox Church. One is born spiritually through baptism. Grace is implanted and grows through the sacraments, particularly Holy Communion. The unbaptized are unborn, therefore grace does not act in them from within. However, to the extent of one’s receptivity he or she can respond to the impulses of the Holy Spirit, Who acts from the outside on all creation.

“What Moses had, which shone on his face after his conversation with God, so that men could not see it from the brightness, the Apostles had it within their soul constantly and in even greater degree (Ex. 34:30, 2 Cor. 3:7).”7

St. Seraphim of Sarov, in explaining the Johanine statement, “for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified” (John 7:39), says that this does not mean that the Spirit of God was not in the world at all, but [that] His presence was not so apparent as in Adam or in us Orthodox Christians. It [was] manifested only externally; yet the signs of His presence in the world were known to mankind...The grace of the Holy Spirit acting externally was...reflected in all the Old Testament prophets and Saints of Israel...though not with the same power as in the people of God, nevertheless, the presence of the Spirit of God also acted in the pagans who did not know the true God, because even among them God found for Himself chosen people.8

Finally, professor Pheidas summarizes the Orthodox position on grace and salvation outside the Church:

“Patristic tradition teaches that Christ, through His overall redeeming work, is the Source (pēgē) of divine grace, and the Holy Spirit is the Bestower (horēgōs) and the Operator (ho energōn) of divine grace in 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.”9

  1. Cf. Archimandrite [now Metropolitan] Hierotheos Vlahos, Orthodox Spirituality—a Brief Introduction, translated by Effie Mavromichali, Birth of the Theotokos Monastery, Levadia, Greece 1994, p. 66.
  2. St. Gregory Palamas, “Antihrretic to Akindynos,” 5, 27, in Prof. Mantzaridis, Palamitic Studies, p, 45. Cf. also “On the Divine and Deifying Participation,” o.c., p. 246.
  3. Ep. 73:21; PL 3:1169.
  4. Thus Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia in his celebrated book, The Orthodox Church, after stating, “Orthodoxy also teaches that outside the Church there is no salvation” (p. 247), goes on to explain that this does not mean that everyone outside the Church is damned. He is, of course, correct. His explanation, however, is not. The Church, he says, must embrace in some way even those who are outside the Church. Thus he promotes belief in an invisible Church, justifying it by saying, “The Spirit of God blows where it chooses,” a reference to the Lord’s words, “τὸ πνεῦμα ὅπου θέλει πνεῖ (to pneuma opou thelei pnei), the wind blows where it wills” (John 3:8) (most English translations render pneuma correctly with wind, although the same word is used for spirit). He then makes an unacceptable statement: “We know where the Church is but we cannot be sure where it is not” (o.c., p. 308. See also p. 211). 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 (cf. 1 Cor. 5:12). Furthermore, Bishop Kallistos introduces the ecumenistic concept of proportional ecclesiology: “By God’s grace the Orthodox Church possesses the fullness of the truth (so its members are bound to believe), but there are other Christian communions which possess to a greater or lesser degree a genuine measure of Orthodoxy” (ibid. emphasis added).
  5. “ἔξωθεν λαβὼν τὴν χάριν, καὶ μὴ συνηρμοσμένην ἔχων αὐτὴν τῷ σώματι, exōthen labōn tēn harin, kai mē synērmosmenēn ehōn autēn tō sōmati” (St. Athanasios the Great, Or. Con. Ar. II, 68. Cf. NPNF-2, vol. 4, p. 385).
  6. St. Diacochos of Photiki, “On Spiritual Knowledge,” 76, in The Philokalia I, p. 279 (emphasis added).
  7. Archimandrite  Maximos of the Holy Mountain, The Table of Love (in Greek), Holy Mountain, Athos, Greece 1999, p. 78 (emphasis added).
  8. “A Conversation of St. Seraphim of Sarov with N. A.  Motovilov,” The New Sarov Press, n.d., Blanco, TX, pp. 12-13. Words in square brackets and emphasis were added.
  9. Professor Vlassios Pheidas, “The Limits of the Church in an Orthodox Perspective”. Not all agree with this position. Fr. Emmanuel Clapsis, after surveying various Orthodox views expressed on the subject, concludes (from an argument a silentio) that the theologians surveyed do not deny that God acts through other Christian churches for the salvation of the world” (The Boundaries of the Church, An Orthodox Debate,” GOTR, vol. 35. No. 2, 1990, pp. 113-127 and online.
    A clearer analysis of the Orthodox position regarding grace inside and outside the Church is expressed in an article by Fr. Gregory Telepneff, “Baptism and Grace”, and in another article by Archbishop  Chrysostomos of Etna, “The Reception of Converts and Related Maters”.

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