A Reflection on Grace (1998)

Bishop Seraphim : Article
A Reflection on Grace
[Published in the “Canadian Orthodox Messenger", Summer 1998]

There has been growing (mostly from the outer edges of the Orthodox Church) a movement of opinion about baptism and the reception of converts. This movement seems to insist that only baptism by triple immersion is effective, and that those who are otherwise baptised, within or without the Church, are somehow deprived of Grace. While certain canons are cited to support this perception, many other canons are conveniently ignored.

It is true that triple immersion is the normal manner of baptism, but that is not the whole story. There are, as always, some circumstances, some situations which have been understood by the Church for hundreds of years, which make complete immersion not possible ; and a baptism by pouring, when necessary, has always been accepted in our Church. To deny the effectiveness of baptism in these cases is to deny that many millions of Orthodox Christians alive today have received the baptism of the Church. This is absurd, and it is an unsatisfactory, formalistic approach to the sacramental life in the Church.

In the same vein, many who convert to Orthodoxy are (and have been for centuries), received by chrismation alone, their previous Trinitarian baptism having been accepted by economia. “The Grace Divine, which always heals what is infirm and completes what is lacking …” fills up any shortfall known to the Lord Himself. This has been a widely held practice in our Church for centuries, and not the result of private opinion. In some parts of the Orthodox Church today, it is the practice that all converts, without distinction, are received by baptism and chrismation, but a substantial proportion of the Church receives at least some converts from certain Christian bodies with chrismation only. Yet, some today are insisting that persons received in this way are deficient, and that they require the fulfilment of the form of triple immersion. It is not unusual for there to be such a difference of opinion or debate in the Church. However, in these times there is a twist in the debate which is serious.

This new opinion suggests that one who has not received triple immersion must now receive it, regardless of how long such a person has been an active Orthodox Christian, and a communicant. The focus is, of course, especially on converts. What is completely incomprehensible to Orthodoxy is that such persons say that the fulfilling of this form of triple immersion alone is what is needed. The other attending sacraments, such as chrismation, do not (for some mysterious reason) need to be repeated. Such an illogical knot bears all the characteristics of the activity of irrational fear.

This legalistic formalism, when put into practice, makes a mockery of Orthodox sacraments, and the formalism blasphemes the Holy Spirit. Why ? Because it makes the sacrament of baptism mere magic. It denies the ability of the Holy Spirit to do precisely what our prayers say that the Holy Spirit in the Grace Divine does. Just as bad, this legalism suggests that the Divine Grace is somehow material. To prove the darkness of the inspiration of this opinion, the propagators of it first trap victims with fear, and then, convincing them, encourage them that they do not have to tell the truth, that they might even lie about their secret immersions. This behaviour is against the Gospel. It is against Orthodoxy. It is blasphemy.

If there is any firmly grounded doubt about any person’s reception, consultation with the priest and bishop can obtain suitable remedies, openly and with a blessing, after due investigation. The Church is not without the ability to administer the sacraments of Christ properly ; and the Holy Spirit is not limited by legalistic externalism.

Dear brothers and sisters, if anyone tries to sow seeds of doubt in your hearts, or suggests some sort of secret remedies, ask big questions as to how this fits the Gospel and the Tradition of the Church. Talk to your priest. Talk to your bishop. Do not let yourself be bound by fears.