Am I a heretic? Thoughts on faith, works, salvation, and baptism

By | June 1, 2022

My wife and I were recently charged (indirectly and by email) by a well-meaning Christian brother with being part of an heretical, non-Christian cult. In this post I’m going to rebut the “cult” and “heresy” charges, respectively. Along the way, I’ll make some observations about baptism, faith vs. works, and what counts as “salvation”.

I. Are we members of a “cult”?

The cult charge stems from our affiliation with the Evangelical Orthodox Church (EOC). It’s a small Christian denomination that started out of Campus Crusade for Christ and moved toward Eastern Orthodox (EO) theology and practice while maintaining a solid toehold in Protestant Evangelicalism. Based on personal conversations with EOC priests and our local bishop, I would describe the EOC as broadly Orthodox, with a few relevant differences:

  • Rejection of apostolic succession: Unlike EO, the EOC views apostolicity as a matter of maintaining apostolic teaching (Acts 2:42), not of having an unbroken chain of ordination going back to the original Apostles (i.e., apostolic succession).
  • Non-sectarian: Unlike EO, the EOC does not claim to be the one true Church to the exclusion of other Christian groups. The bounds of the “One True Catholic and Apostolic Church” (as the Nicene Creed puts it) are defined by (1) faithfulness to apostolic teaching and (2) the working of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers. Because the wind/Spirit blows where He wills (John 3:8), the Church cannot be confined to any particular ecclesiastical institution or denomination.
  • Guarded communion: Unlike EO, the EOC practices a “guarded” rather than a “closed” communion. In a closed communion to partake of the Eucharist one must have been formally baptized into the ecclesiastical group in question, or into some group that is in “full communion” with the former. The EOC doesn’t require this. Our communion is neither closed nor wide open (available to anyone) but guarded in that certain conditions (see FAQ #8) must be met, particularly having had a Trinitarian baptism, being able to affirm the Nicene Creed, and believing in some sort of “real presence” (i.e., “that the bread and wine are, in a mystery, what Christ said – His own Body and Blood”). The latter statement is deliberately vague and not intended to entail transubstantiation.
  • Desire to remain an independent bridge between the Eastern and Western Church. The EOC emerged out of a Western Evangelical context and does not look to throw off that heritage but rather to blend the best of Evangelicalism into a broadly Eastern Orthodox framework.
  • Greater flexibility of local expression. The EOC allows more flexibility for local expression than the EO does. Most EO patriarchies are closely tied to a particular ethnic identity (e.g., Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, etc.) and mandate aspects of the service that may not resonate well with communities outside those ethnicities. EOC parishes in the Americas are free to use Protestant and Evangelical hymns where appropriate during the liturgy, whereas parishes in Africa are free to use African hymns and adapt non-essential aspects of the liturgy to local conditions.

Based on my own experience with the EOC, I don’t see anything in the group that merits designation as a “cult”. In fact, the non-sectarianism and liturgical flexibility of the EOC are exactly the opposite of what one would expect from a cult, i.e., a sociologically exclusionary and controlling organization.

So whence the charge? I believe it stems from two aspects of the EOC Wikipedia entry as well as a specific point of doctrine to be discussed below in connection with the “heresy” charge.

First, in Wikipedia the early EOC is described as being connected to the “shepherding movement“, a controversial hierarchical discipleship system that, while well-intended, lends itself to authoritarianism and spiritual abuse. Now, I cannot say how well that description bears on the actual practice of the early EOC, for I wasn’t there. What I can say is that current EOC practice does not reflect any such hierarchical, authoritarian discipleship framework. No one has ever been appointed over us as a “spiritual mentor” that we need to “submit” to. Our interactions with clergy and laity alike have been warm, mutually respectful, and open. Whenever I’ve raised questions about points of doctrine—and I have, several times—I’ve never been given a blunt appeal to authority, but always a reasoned appeal to both Scripture and Tradition. And even when I’ve made clear that I remain skeptical about certain points of Orthodox doctrine (e.g., Mary’s perpetual virginity), I’ve been told that that’s okay. It’s not in the Creed. It’s not essential. Similarly, in practical matters like keeping the Lenten fast, no one has called to check up on us to make sure we’re doing it properly. In short, current EOC practice is the opposite of what one would expect from a cult. It’s not authoritarian or controlling, and it doesn’t privilege loyalty to the group or its leadership over Scripture, Tradition, and family.

Second, Wikipedia describes the 1979 founding of the EOC as “six members of the General Apostolic Council of the New Covenant Apostolic Order 
 stood in a circle and self-ordained each other bishops.” The circular self-ordination thing may sound a little cultish, but recall the context. A group of evangelical leaders (such as Peter Gillquist) affiliated with Campus Crusade for Christ collectively came to agree with the broad outlines of Eastern Orthodoxy but were not (yet) willing to go all the way and forsake their Evangelical roots. Wanting to build a network of churches with a partly-Evangelical, partly-Eastern Orthodox orientation, how else were they to proceed? EO requires that every parish be under a regional bishop. So they needed bishops. Since they weren’t (yet) constrained by apostolic succession, but only by adherence to apostolic teaching, there was no in principle bar to episcopal self-ordination, however self-serving that may be. As for adhering to apostolic teaching, the EOC had already (since 1977 on) been in regular contact with recognized EO authorities through St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. From St. Vladimir’s they obtained instruction in Orthodoxy and received confirmation that the EOC’s understanding of apostolic teaching was accurate on the essentials, though differences over apostolic succession and the legacy influence of the shepherding movement remained sticking points. In short, it wasn’t as though people with no relevant theological training and no oversight by recognized ecclesiastical authorities were ordaining themselves bishops out of the blue. Eventually Gillquist and the majority of the EOC did officially join up with EO, but a remnant (today’s EOC) hewed to the vision of blending Eastern and Western Christianity within a mostly Eastern framework.

II. Are we “heretics”? Baptismal regeneration and sola fide

The charge of departing from Christian teaching relates specifically to the EOC position on baptism. According to the charge,

The Evangelical Orthodox church is a system that teaches justification via faith + works[.] We are saved through faith, and faith alone. Scripture is abundantly clear that if we add anything to faith as a requirement for salvation, it is a false gospel, and those who affirm such a belief are to be accursed (Galatians 1:7-9). The doctrine at hand is called “Sola Fide.” It’s at the very heart of the Gospel. To add anything to it is to deny the Gospel. … [The EOC’s] own website [see FAQ #5] attests to the fact that they deny Sola Fide. It says that Christ “bids us to come to Him in faith and be washed in the waters of baptism, through which our sins are remitted and the gift of the Holy Spirit is received.” (emphasis added)

The quote from the EOC website is accurate, though it does omit the Scriptural reference (Acts 2:38). The charge is that, by enjoining faith and baptism, the EOC adds something to faith “as a requirement for salvation” and therefore denies sola fide and teaches a “false gospel”.

How should one respond to this? Having reflected on the Scriptural teaching on baptism at some length and spoken to several EOC priests, I believe this heresy charge reflects a serious misunderstanding of the EOC position on baptism as well as on matters of faith, works, and salvation.

First, many Scriptural passages connect baptism with repentance, forgiveness, salvation, new birth, and/or our union with Christ. Consider these quotations from Scripture (ESV) with my emphasis added:

  • Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” (Mark 16:6)
  • “And he [John the Baptist] went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (Luke 3:3)
  • “Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.'” (John 3:5) [This was universally understood by the early Church as a reference to baptism.]
  • “And Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.'” (Acts 2:38)
  • “And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.” (Acts 22:16)
  • “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:3–4)
  • “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.” (1 Cor. 12:13)
  • “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” (Gal. 3:27)
  • In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses.” (Col. 2:11–13)
  • Baptism 
 now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 3:21)

Compare those statements with the Nicene Creed: “We confess one baptism for the remission of sins.” Clearly both Scripture and Tradition teach that there is some connection between baptism and forgiveness, salvation, etc. The quote from the EOC website merely states this fact. Indeed, it restates the Apostle Peter in Acts 2:38 (cf. also the Apostle Paul’s statement in Acts 22:16). Now, none of the above passages define precisely what the connection between baptism and forgiveness/salvation is. I have more to say on that topic below, but for now let me simply ask: Do any of the above passages deny sola fide? Do any of them teach that baptism is a “work” that must be added to faith to obtain salvation? If not—if Peter’s statement in Acts 2:38 is compatible with sola fide—then so is the EOC’s position.

All Christians who take the Bible seriously have to grapple with the above passages. Most Christians—Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant alike, even Luther, a staunch sola fide advocate—have taken such passages to teach a notion of baptismal regeneration. Of course, these groups do not all understand the connection between baptism and forgiveness/salvation in the same way, and so it shouldn’t be assumed that baptismal regeneration means the same thing to all of them. But that there is some sort of connection between baptism and forgiveness/salvation is the orthodox Christian position.

Hence, merely affirming some such connection—which is all the EOC statement does—is not a non-Christian heresy. To derive a conflict between baptismal regeneration and sola fide one would have to show that the EOC takes baptism to be a “work” over and above placing faith in Christ and that baptism qua “work” is also necessary for salvation. To assume that the EOC teaches that based on a brief paraphrase of the Apostle Peter is uncharitably stretching the text beyond its apparent or intended meaning. Again, if Peter’s position is compatible with sola fide, then so is the EOC’s.

To be fair, some groups do seem to teach a version of baptismal regeneration that veers very close to a denial of sola fide, if not actually entailing its denial. For example, the Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms:

1257 The Lord himself affirms that Baptism is necessary for salvation. He also commands his disciples to proclaim the Gospel to all nations and to baptize them. Baptism is necessary for salvation for those to whom the Gospel has been proclaimed and who have had the possibility of asking for this sacrament. The Church does not know of any means other than Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude; 
 God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments. [emphasis added]

1261 As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them. Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus’ tenderness toward children which caused him to say: “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them,” allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism. 

The Roman Catholic position here seems to be that the physical rite of water baptism is ordinarily necessary for salvation, although we may “hope” that there are exceptions (e.g., for children who die unbaptized) because God “is not bound by his sacraments”. The reason why I say this “veers close” to a denial of sola fide is because it seems to say that the physical rite of baptism is (ordinarily) per se necessary for salvation. That is to say, it is the rite itself (per se) that is necessary. If so, that would make it something we (ordinarily) have to do over and above trusting Jesus on pain of being eternally screwed.

Likewise, the Eastern Orthodox Synod of Jerusalem (1672) says the following:

DECREE XVI. We believe Holy Baptism, which was instituted by the Lord, and is conferred in the name of the Holy Trinity, to be of the highest necessity. For without it none is able to be saved, as the Lord saith, “Whosoever is not born of water and of the Spirit, shall in no wise enter into the Kingdom of the Heavens.” {John 3:5} And, therefore, it is necessary even for infants, since they also are subject to original sin, and without Baptism are not able to obtain its remission. 
 And the effects of Baptism are, to speak concisely, firstly, the remission of the hereditary transgression, and of any sins whatsoever which the baptised may have committed. Secondly, it delivereth him from the eternal punishment, to which he was liable, as well for original sin, as for mortal sins he may have individually committed. Thirdly, it giveth to such immortality; for in justifying them from past sins, it maketh them temples of God. [emphasis added]

Now, I’ve directly queried two EOC priests about this passage and they both denied it as EOC teaching. For one thing, while influential in some EO circles, the Council of Jerusalem is merely a “local” council, not an ecumenical council, so it doesn’t have the same dogmatic authority as, say, the Nicene Creed. Further, the part about infants needing to be cleansed from “original sin” or “hereditary transgression” (as well as the affirmation of transubstantiation in Decree XVII) sounds a lot more like Roman Catholicism than traditional Eastern Orthodoxy. The notion of limbo and the fate of unbaptized infants has a long history in Roman Catholicism from the time of Augustine (354–430 AD) on, but it wasn’t a major issue in early Orthodoxy, in part because Augustine was not a major figure in the East like he was in the West.

Second, in the New Testament, baptism is the immediate, normative response to the Gospel:

  • “And Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.'” (Acts 2:38)
  • “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.” (Acts 2:41)
  • “But when they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.” (Acts 8:12)
  • Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus. And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, ‘See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?’” (Acts 8:35–36)
  • “‘To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.’ While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10:43–47)
  • And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family.” (Acts 16:32–33)
  • “Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed in the Lord, together with his entire household. And many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized.” (Acts 18:8)
  • And Paul said, ‘John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.’ On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.” (Acts 19:4–5)
  • “And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.” (Acts 22:16)

For those like me who have been raised as Evangelical Protestants, it may be helpful to think of it this way. In many Evangelical churches (also Billy Graham crusades and the like) after the sermon there is an “altar call” wherein people are invited to come forward and “pray the sinner’s prayer”.  This is basically just asking Jesus for forgiveness and in faith receiving that forgiveness. Evangelicals typically see this as the moment of one’s salvation, of one’s “getting saved”. One is saved through faith alone by trusting in work of Christ alone. The key point is that, in the New Testament era baptism played the same role as praying the sinner’s prayer. Baptism was the “come to Jesus” moment, just like praying the sinner’s prayer is for modern Evangelicals. That is why Peter describes baptism—which “now saves you”—as “an appeal to God for a good conscience” (1 Peter 3:21). Repentance, faith in Jesus, baptism, forgiveness, regeneration, salvation, being “born again”, and receiving the Holy Spirit were all seen as a package deal. Consequently, baptism wasn’t a “work” over-and-above faith in Jesus that was somehow necessary for salvation; rather, it was the normative, initial expression of repentance and faith in Jesus. Hence Peter’s call to “repent and be baptized 
 for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38). Were Peter a modern Evangelical he might have said, “repent, pray this prayer aloud with me, and receive God’s forgiveness for your sins”—except that the external, physical act of baptism—not a merely internal prayer—was the normative manner in which saving faith in Jesus was to be expressed. Baptismal regeneration, so understood, is clearly compatible with sola fide because it is an expression of one’s faith or trust in God.

To reinforce this point I’d like to make two further observations to support the idea that physical baptism is an outward expression of an inner reality.

  1. First, Paul makes an explicit parallel between baptism and circumcision as rites of initiation into a covenant community: “In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses.” (Col. 2:11–13) Now consider what Paul says about circumcision in Romans 2:28–29a (NKJV):

    For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit.

    In other words, physical circumcision doesn’t count for anything in its own right. It’s not per se necessary. What’s necessary is circumcision “of the heart”, of which physical circumcision is an outward sign. In light of the parallel between baptism and circumcision, I believe the Romans passage could plausibly be paraphrased as follows:

    For he is not a [Christian] who is one outwardly, nor is [baptism] that which is outward in the [water]; but he is a [Christian] who is one inwardly; and [baptism] is that of the heart, in the Spirit.

    In other words, true (saving) baptism occurs by faith in Christ. Outward (water) baptism is the natural, prescribed expression of that faith, but it has no efficacy apart from the Spirit and a transformed heart. (Of course, God can and does work through the sacrament to bring grace and healing into the hearts of those who trust Him, so it’s not “just a symbol”.)

  2.  Second, consider something the late Presbyterian minister James Montgomery Boice had to say:

    The clearest example that shows the meaning of baptizo is a text from the Greek poet and physician Nicander, who lived about 200 B.C. It is a recipe for making pickles and is helpful because it uses both words. Nicander says that in order to make a pickle, the vegetable should first be ‘dipped’ or bapto into boiling water and then ‘baptised’ or baptizo in the vinegar solution. Both verbs concern the immersing of vegetables in a solution. But the first is temporary. The second, the act of baptising the vegetable, produces a permanent change. When used in the New Testament, this word more often refers to our union and identification with Christ than to our water baptism. For instance later in Mark’s gospel Jesus says ‘He that believes and is baptised shall be saved’. He is saying that mere intellectual assent is not enough. There must be a union with him, a real change, like the vegetable to the pickle!

    Nearly all of the verses I brought up earlier (Mark 16:6, Acts 2:38, etc.) that associate baptism with salvation or forgiveness of sin explicitly put belief or repentance first. We are to believe/repent and then be baptized. The physical rite of baptism is thus secondary to having on the inside the kind of faith that naturally finds expression in humble obedience to God, including obedience unto water baptism. As James stresses (“faith without works is dead”), this is only kind of faith that can save us.

Third, there are two ways of thinking about salvation. Both are important, and both are compatible with sola fide (rightly understood).

  1. Initial salvation, i.e., salvation as entrance into the Church, the mystical Body of Christ. In this sense of “salvation” one becomes grafted into “the true vine” (John 15:1–5) and comes to be “in Christ”. Protestants typically refer to this as justification and understand it as an external imputation of Christ’s righteousness, being “covered in the blood of the Lamb”, and being forgiven of one’s sins.
  2. Final salvation, i.e., salvation as the ultimate goal or telos of the Christian life, namely, becoming fully Christ-like, fully conformed to the image of God’s Son (Romans 8:29; 2 Cor. 3:18). Protestants typically refer to this as sanctification, a process of inner transformation whereby the external righteousness of Christ imputed at one’s initial salvation gradually becomes matched by one’s own inner righteousness.

Protestant Christians mainly focus on (1), initial salvation. That’s why Protestant services frequently include “altar calls” and encouragement to “pray the sinner’s prayer”. Protestants evangelists frequently ask “Have you been saved?” or “When were you saved?”, thereby conceptualizing salvation as something that happens and is completed at a specific point in time.

Eastern Orthodox Christians mainly focus on (2), final salvation. That’s why they put a lot of emphasis on fasting, prayer, and other spiritual disciplines. If you ask an Orthodox Christian if he is “saved”, a typical response will be “I have been saved, I am being saved, and I will be saved”, thereby conceptualizing salvation as an ongoing and not-yet-completed process.

What I want to say is, first, both conceptions of salvation are important. Our spiritual journey has to start somewhere. And it starts from where we are, sins and all, with simple repentance and faith. As the Orthodox monks continually pray, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, be merciful to me, a sinner”. That’s it. It does us no good to pad our spiritual “resumĂ©” with a bunch of “works” before turning to Jesus. Apart from faith in Jesus, our deeds don’t count for anything (Gal. 5:6). We have to start with simple faith. But we can’t end there. Salvation isn’t just about getting “fire insurance” or a “get out of hell free” card. Salvation is about total transformation. The God who “began a good work” in us is working in and through us to “bring it to completion” (Phil. 1:6; 2:12–13). This implies, of course, that the process isn’t already complete.

Second, both conceptions of salvation are compatible with sola fide. Regarding initial salvation, we don’t have to “do” anything other than cast our hopes on Jesus to receive God’s forgiving embrace. In the Old Testament all people had to do was look at the serpent that Moses lifted up to be saved. Likewise, all we have to do is look to Jesus (John 3:14–16). So initial salvation is compatible with sola fide. But as Luther famously put it, “we are saved by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone”. As James 2:14–26 says, “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead”. A so-called “faith” that does not naturally find expression in obedience to God, is not a living—and therefore not a saving—faith. So even in the context of initial salvation, faith is never “alone” or “by itself”. We don’t have to “do” anything other than trust Jesus, but if we really do trust Jesus then that will have practical consequences for how we live moving forward.

What about final salvation? As in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, God welcomes us back as we are, but He loves us too much to allow us to stay as we are. And so He disciplines us (cf. Hebrews 12:6-8) with the goal of making us “perfect” as He Himself is perfect (Matt. 5:48). St. Paul makes clear that becoming Christlike requires steady effort and disciple (1 Cor. 9:24–27; 1 Tim. 4:7-8). We are to “work out” our own salvation (Phil. 2:12), to “walk by the Spirit” and “crucify the flesh” by overcoming sin (Gal. 5:16–24). This process of working out our salvation obviously involves “works” of service, love, and devotion. These works are expressions of a living faith (Gal. 5:6), and so are compatible with sola fide. If we truly trust in Jesus and are committed to Him, then we will want to cultivate a Christlike character and live lives that please Him (Matt. 25:21).

III. Summing up

If the brother who charged us with heresy had taken the time to talk to us directly, we could probably have cleared most of it up. We aren’t as far apart as he thinks we are. The EOC is not a non-Christian “cult”. And we do not believe that salvation is a matter of faith + works in the sense that we must do things to earn or merit God’s favor—as though we could ever put God in our debt (hint: we can’t). But like all historically orthodox Christians we affirm that God’s plan for salvation includes our sanctification and so doesn’t end with our initial trust in Jesus. Saving faith necessarily tends toward a life of obedience and service to God (John 3:36; Romans 2:6–7).

One thought on “Am I a heretic? Thoughts on faith, works, salvation, and baptism

  1. Tom Belt

    Alan! I’m so glad to see that you’re blogging again. Looks like you’ve been back at it for a while. I haven’t been checking for ages. Nice to see you posting again. Blessings and love, always! Tom


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