by Fr. Theodore Stylianopoulos
Knowing that a man is not justified by works of the Law, but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of the Law, because by works of the Law shall no one be justified . . . For through the Law I have died to the Law, that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me-- Gal 2:16-17, 19-20
A large segment of Protestant Christians in the United States are known as Evangelicals. Evangelicals take the Bible seriously. They center their lives on the evangelion (the gospel)--the good news of salvation. They often talk about personal salvation, about “how you get saved,” and the familiar answer is: Accept Christ as your personal Savior in sincere prayer, ask Him to come into your heart and forgive your sins, and you are saved. You are then put right before God and enjoy a personal relationship with Christ. This event is called “justification by faith” or more generally “salvation by faith,” apart from good works. This teaching is based on texts especially from the letters of St. Paul, such as the above (Gal 2:16-20). Many Evangelicals recall the exact date and time of being “born again” and celebrate it as the foremost event in their lives.
We do not judge the sincere convictions of other Christians, lest we be judged, according to the words of the Lord (Mat 7:1). Justification by faith is an authentic teaching of the New Testament. It is also a part of Orthodox teaching because whatever the New Testament teaches as essential, the Orthodox Church teaches as well. The Bible belongs to the Church. Equally, the acts of penitent prayer, asking God for forgiveness, and inviting Christ and the Holy Spirit to dwell in our hearts--these acts, too, are indispensable to Orthodox Christian life. But we must ask: is salvation a one-time event in life? What is the role of faith and works in the mystery of our salvation? What does Jesus say? What does St. Paul say? What do we teach about these issues as Orthodox Christians?
>Let’s take a few examples from the life of Christ. We know that Jesus emphasized faith. To the woman with the issue of blood whom He healed, He said: “Your faith has made you well” (Mark 5:34). To the blind beggar He met on a street in Jericho and also healed, He said: “Your faith has made you well” (Mark 10:52). Jesus tied personal faith in Him to the efficacy of healings. But was faith the most critical factor behind these cures? Jesus perceived “power had gone forth from him” to heal the woman with the issue of blood (Mark 5:30). Sometimes Christ out of compassion healed people without asking for faith (Mark 1:34; 3:5). And so with all the acts of healing, it was above all Christ’s divine power that cured the sick, the lame, and the blind. The role of faith was significant but secondary to divine grace. God provided the grace, faith received the gift.
Jesus connected personal faith in Him to our eternal salvation. He declared: “Every one who acknowledges me before people, I also will acknowledge them before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before people, I also will deny them before my father in heaven” (Mat 10:32-33). The Gospel of John frequently connects faith in Christ to each person’s eternal destiny. We read: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). And again: “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25-26). Christ further declared to Thomas: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (John 20:29). Jesus himself is the supreme example of faith. In the garden of Gethsemane, as He confronted the prospect of death by crucifixion, Christ prayed to God: “Not my will, by Thy will be done” (Mat 26:39). Without doubt, faith had a primary place in the life and teaching of Jesus.
But Jesus also demanded good works to go along with faith. A man came up to Him with a question about eternal salvation. “Teacher,” he asked, “what good deed (ti agathon) must I do, to have eternal life?” Jesus did not send him away or correct him. He didn’t say: “You are asking the wrong question; you need only to believe in me and you will be saved.” Rather Jesus said to him: “Keep the commandments . . . You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; honor your father and mother, and love your neighbor as yourself” (Mat 19:16-19). Rather than separate faith and works, Jesus closely united the two as being definitive to Christian life. That’s the undeniable implication of His great discourse we call “Sermon on the Mount.” The Sermon contains a vast amount of teachings and exhortations Christ expected His followers to learn and live by (Mat. chaps. 5-7). “Do not bear false witness . . . Love your enemies . . . Seek first God’s kingdom and His righteousness . . . Judge not, that you be not judged” (Mat 5:33, 44; 6:33; 7:1). Jesus set down these teachings as the necessary standards of moral righteousness. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount He denounced the kind of faith that is only lip service. He said those who relied only on faith risked the loss of eternal salvation. He warned: “On that day many will call out to me ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy and cast out demons in your name?’ And then I will declare to them: ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers’” (Mat 7:21-23).
Let us also recall the parable about the Last Judgment (Mat 25:31-46). When Christ comes in His glory with all the angels, He will gather all the nations before Him for universal judgment. Everyone will be divided into two groups--the sheep on the right and the goats on the left--before Christ the King. The ones on the right will be blessed and given the inheritance of the eternal kingdom. The ones on the left will be cursed and sent off to eternal fire. What will make the difference? What will be the criterion of judgment? Works of mercy! Feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and the prisoner. Jesus declared: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Mat 25:40).
On another occasion Jesus referred to faith as lifetime work. He urged a crowd not to “labor for the food that perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life.” They asked: “What must we do to be doing the works of God (Ti poiomen ina ergazometha to erga tou Theou)?” He replied: “This is the work of God (to ergon tou Theou): that you believe in Him whom God has sent” (John 6:27-29). The most pleasing work to God is the continuous exercise of faith in Christ as Savior and Lord throughout our lives. Christ promised us a continuous personal communion with Him, a continuous Easter experience, based on love, faith, and the keeping of His commandments. He said: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments . . . If a person loves me, He will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14:15-17, 23). Our “new birth” is given to us in Baptism according to the words of the Lord: “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). And if we lose our way, heartfelt prayer, repentance, Holy Confession and Holy Communion provide personal occasions for spiritual renewal throughout our lives. How important for salvation the Eucharist is, we know from the words of Christ: “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:54). In these many ways, according to Christ, Orthodox Christians throughout their lives receive salvation and renewal through faith, works, and the sacraments of the Church.
Then there is St. Paul. The apostle is known as the foremost advocate of justification by faith. In the above text of Gal 2:16-20, St. Paul seems to say something very different than His Master about faith and works. These words of Paul reflect his conversion by which he left behind the Law of Moses and joined Christ wholeheartedly. Previously the Mosaic Law was the center of his life, but after Damascus Christ became the core of his being. Christ dwelt in St. Paul: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). From this transformed perspective Paul contrasted and opposed faith and works. He did so categorically: “A person is not justified by works of the Law but through faith in Jesus Christ; even we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of the Law, because by works of the Law shall no one be justified” (Gal 2:16). The key to this passage is to see that St. Paul is referring not to ethical works but to “works of the Law” (erga tou nomou), namely, the Mosaic Law.
What are the works of the Mosaic Law? Anyone who studies Galatians carefully will note the apostle is referring to the Jewish religious practices of circumcision, dietary laws, and festivals (Gal 2:2-5, 12; 4:9; 5:1-6, 12; 6:12-15). The same reference to “works of the Law” is also primary in the Letter to the Romans (Rom 3:19-20, 27-30). For Paul, such practices were no longer necessary for salvation. Christ had fulfilled their purpose and also terminated them at the same time (Rom 8:4; 10:4). For Paul, to adopt such religious practices as some Gentile Christians were doing, was nothing less that betrayal of the gospel (Gal 1:6-9). He declared: “I testify again to every man who receives circumcision that he is bound to keep the whole Law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the Law; you have fallen away from grace” (Gal 5:3-4). St. Paul is not opposing faith to ethical works but to the “works of the Law.”
But what does St. Paul say about ethical works? Do ethical works have a place in salvation? The answer is, most certainly, yes. In the same Letter to the Galatians, Paul uses a striking expression: “faith working through love” (Gal 5:6). Yes, faith is primary, but faith working through love--loving deeds. Good deeds are inseparable from and essential to the life of faith. Otherwise, according to Paul, those who commit sinful acts and do not repent of them--and he names them: fornication, idolatry, sorcery, selfishness, drunkenness, carousing, and the like--“will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal 5:21; see also 1 Cor 6:9-11). In other words, those who do such things, including Christians to whom he is writing, will suffer ultimate loss of salvation. Toward the end of Galatians Paul pens the following admonition as well: “Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for whatever a person sows, that he will also reap . . . Let us not grow weary in doing good (to agathon), for in due season we shall reap, if we do not lose heart . . . Let us do good to all, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith” (Gal 6:7, 9-10). We come to Christ as sinners and are justified by faith apart from good works. But once we connect with Christ and enjoy a saving relationship with Him, we ought to honor Him with good works because we love Christ and also because our final judgment will hinge in part on the criterion of good deeds. Paul states: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body” (2 Cor 5:10).
According to St. Paul, not only loving deeds but also the sacraments of Baptism (Rom 6:1-11) and the Eucharist (1 Cor 10:16-22; 11:23-32) are decisive to salvation. Read carefully Paul’s Letter to the Romans, chapters 1-6. Note how often in chapters 1-5 he speaks of faith, the importance of faith, and the blessings that come from faith. But when do all these blessings take place? What is the event at which salvation truly takes hold? Baptism! That’s the answer St. Paul gives in Romans, chapter 6. All of chapter 6 is about Baptism and life after Baptism. For Paul, it is in Baptism that the believer is united with Christ, dies to the power of sin, and receives new life in Christ (6:1-11). Baptized Christians ought to use their bodies no longer “as instruments of sin but as weapons of righteousness” (6:12-13). Life after Baptism, says Paul, includes the responsibility to live by the “standard of teaching” (typon didaches) which Christians have been taught (6:17). Otherwise, even for Christians, “the wages of sin is death” (6:23). Paul is clear-cut about the criterion of final judgment: “God will render to every person according to his works; to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, God will give eternal life; but for those who . . . obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury” (Rom 2:6-8).
Let us sum up the main points. The work of salvation belongs entirely to God. It is God through Christ and the Holy Spirit, who has the divine power to rescue us from the forces of sickness, evil, sin, death, and the devil. It is God through Christ and the Holy Spirit who alone provides justification, forgiveness, and new life to sinners who come to Him with faith. And God provides salvation as a most amazing and unceasing gift to all sincere seekers.
From our side, the question is about receiving and using the gift of salvation. The gift is offered, but if we do not receive it, we don’t have it, and certainly cannot use it. God offers the gift. We can choose to accept it or reject it. As Orthodox Christians we do not believe in predestination. Jesus said: “Whoever wants to come after me, let him take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). The gift and the challenge to follow Jesus through a life of faith and works coincide.
The reception of the gift of salvation is not a one-time event but a life-time process. St. Paul employs the verb “to save” (sozesthai) in the past tense (“we have been saved,” Rom 8:24; Eph 2:5); in the present tense (“we are being saved,” 1 Cor 1:18; 15:2), and in the future tense (“we will be saved,” Rom 5:10). He can think even of justification as a future event and part of the final judgment (Rom 2:13, 16). For Paul, Christians are involved in a lifetime covenant with God in which we work, planting and watering, but it is “only God who gives the growth” (1 Cor 3:7). We are “co-workers with God” (synergoi Theou, 1 Cor 3:9; 1 Thess 3:2). (Not “co-workers under God” as some translations would have it). The mystery of salvation is a duet, not a solo. It is a life-time engagement with God. It has ups and downs, twists and turns, with opportunities to grow in the love of God, knowing that we can turn to Him again and again and receive forgiveness and a new birth. When we come to Christ as sinners, we have no works to offer to Him, but only faith and repentance. But once we come to Him and receive the gift of salvation, we enter into a sacred covenant to honor Him with good works. We read in Ephesians: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God . . . [We are] created in Christ Jesus for good works” (Eph 2:8-10).
The teaching of the New Testament is that God’s grace, our free will, and our faith and good works, are intimately connected. The Holy Spirit energizes in us both faith and good works as we thirst for and seek God’s grace. Neither faith nor good works can be presented as merit before God, but only as return gifts in humility, love, and thanksgiving. Let us not forget as well the sober words of James: “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead . . . Faith is completed by works . . . A person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:17, 22, 24). By free will, faith, and earnest labors, we work together with the grace of God in the awesome gift and mystery of salvation. As St. Paul puts it: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work His good pleasure” (Phil 2:12-13). To God Almighty, together with the Son and the Holy Spirit, be praise and worship forever. Amen.