What can be said to one who posits that Jesus' words - "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise him up at the last day" (NKJV translation) - cannot be taken literally because that would mean that all those who do not believe in the Real Presence of the Eucharist have no life in them, ie. no salvation and will not be raised up at the last day.As you know, there are some Orthodox, especially in certain Byzantine circles, who would assert just that. We are not among them, however, primarily because we see the Holy Spirit working in the lives of Christians (and others) outside the visible boundaries of the Church.
This is essentially what some think we are saying.
Now I am sure that Orthodoxy would not 'un-church' or 'un-save' those Christians who, by virtue of their lack of understanding, cannot embrace the great Grace and Mystery of the Eucharist.
So, what would be a good way to approach this, do you think?
However, knowing that the “Spirit blows where the Spirit wills”, we also know that the Spirit, “proceeding from the Father,” “rests upon the Son”. That is, the Holy Spirit is always working to move people toward Christ, and this inevitably means toward the Church, which is Christ's mystical body, the "extension of the Incarnation" in history. Thus, we have to consider both soteriology and ecclesiology here. The first consideration is that salvation is a process of transformation which occurs because one is incorporated into Christ by means of the activity of the Holy Spirit. This incorporation into Christ, however, is not simply a matter of an individual, private relationship with Christ by means of faith, prayer, and the private reading of Scripture. One’s relationship with the Church, the mystical body of Christ, is integral to one’s relationship with Christ, and participation in all of the mysteries, the sacraments, is participation in the life of Christ as found in the Church. One cannot separate the two. Therefore, if one is outside the visible, social, sacramental Church, one is cut off from privileged avenues of access to the Divine-Human life of Christ, the life, the communion, that Christ wants to share with us, the life that is itself salvation.
This is objectively true, but one will note that this account of salvation differs from that found in those quarters which hold a low doctrine of the sacraments and of the Church or ignore both altogether. For these believers, the only thing that counts is a strictly individual faith which results in one having the righteousness of Christ imputed to them, not the righteous life of Christ imparted to them. While there is no denial of sanctification, it is seen as separate from, and subsequent to, justification which is strictly forensic, a legal acquittal and which, in and of itself, is alone of the essence of salvation. In this account, the Church is merely an invisible brotherhood, made up only of those who have experienced this justification. One can see easily how such a belief system can lead to all kinds of problems, the first and foremost being that salvation is in danger of being reduced to “fire insurance”.
But can those who believe such in fact be saved? The short answer is “yes”. History shows that Evangelicalism has produced some great Saints. So how is this possible? Because Christ, through the Holy Spirit, acts by extraordinary means to save all who seek Him with a sincere heart, even in those cases where these seekers are not even aware that it is Christ they seek; these, too, are made members of the Church by invisible bonds. To account for this, the Roman Church, quite rightly, puts forward the ideas of “baptism of desire” and “spiritual communion”. However, it should be noted that “baptism of desire” contains within itself the idea of the DESIRE for sacramental baptism: if one knows of the regenerative efficacy of baptism, one would naturally desire it. For those not so aware, either because of lack of knowledge or lack of understanding, the question then becomes one of implicit desire. The same would hold true for “spiritual communion”.
Having said that, I am not about to let your interrogators off the hook all that easily. In speaking of the proverbial African natives who have never heard the gospel, an Orthodox bishop was wont to say, “The question is not, ‘can they be saved apart from a conscious knowledge of Christ?’ No, the question is, ‘can I be saved if I reject the Christ of whom I know?” Can I be saved outside the visible Church? No, I cannot. I NEED the sacraments. I NEED to eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Son of Adam. Those who question you profess to believe the Bible – every word – in a most literal way (or at least the Protestant canon thereof). My father was among their number, and he was fond of saying, “If the Bible says that Jonah swallowed the fish, I would believe it.” Unfortunately, however, their belief in the Bible is in fact a belief in a particular and one-sided reading of the Bible, one which ignores its sacramental realism and its doctrine of the visible, social, historical, authoritative Church, “the fulness of [Christ] who fills all in all” in St. Paul’s words. So, while one must acknowledge the possibility of an Evangelical being saved as an Evangelical, it must also be said that one creates unnecessary barriers to his or her “being transformed in the image of Christ” and “enduring to the end” by staying outside of the visible, historical, sacramental Church and refusing to participate in her worship and sacraments. I am reminded here of our Lord’s words in Matthew 22:1-10 and Luke 14:16-24.
You will also find the following, by Lutheran scholar Phillip Cary, relevant and useful, and hopefully your friends will as well:
Why Luther is not quite Protestant