It’s sadly interesting that in 500 years the debate over salvation and the balance of faith and works has not been settled but is renewed in every generation. I am not sure that I can settle it, but I will give it a try.
In a recent Power Ball lottery, the cash prize was almost half a billion dollars. With that kind of money at stake, many people who never buy a ticket bought one. It’s easy to dream of how nice it would be to win such a sum. Even if we won the prize, it would not match the richness of God. In Ephesians, Chapter 2, St Paul says that God is exceedingly rich, especially in His mercy. Being rich, he has given to us all the gift of salvation. Even with the largest Power Ball win, we couldn’t give gifts to everyone. No one earns a gift and in this we agree with the Protestant West. But then, the West would caution us that we need not go any further because we will make the mistake of what they call “works righteousness” which is the opposite of salvation by Grace alone. Say nothing more than “saved by Grace” they tell us. Just enjoy the fact that you have it.
Yet, is salvation just a gift that you display on the shelf of your life? To answer, let’s consider the nature of the gift that is freely given to us. In the same place in Ephesians we read this important passage: “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ unto good works which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” Like all things, the Bible puts all things into balance but it is the theologians who often put things out of balance. We are created (saved?) for good works. You cannot separate grace and works. With this idea that we are saved for works, we can see that there is no debate between St. Paul and St. James.
Again, the fact is that you cannot separate faith from works. This does not mean that the Orthodox work to attain salvation which is a free gift, but we work because we have salvation. Separate faith from works and you destroy the proper Biblical balance. Protestant folks will ask if we are saved. What do they mean by that? You must believe in Christ as your Lord and Savior – yes, we believe; you must repent and make a public confession of your faith – yes, we do that every week; you must be baptized -yes, we do that also. We Orthodox also know that when we enter the Orthodox Church of Jesus Christ, our journey which brought us to the baptismal font now goes on until the day comes when we will see Him “face to face.” Until that day, we can not be asleep in His House.
Well then what good works are we supposed to do? St. James says that pure religion is “to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction”; that is good works are what we do for others out of love. Hold on! It doesn’t end there. James goes on: “to keep [yourself] unspotted from the world.” So, good works are also ascetic in nature; that is we must work on ourselves. We do these things because the gift is in us and we are foreordained to them.
Explanations vary in the West about how keeping yourself unspotted is accomplished, but the Orthodox know the absolute importance or works lie a disciplined life of prayer, fasting, study and church attendance. All are essential for separation from the world, because this is how we attain true holiness. The Bible says, “Without holiness, no one will see the Lord,” and the Orthodox will confess that attaining holiness takes a lot of work.
The Orthodox call this ascetic work “theosis.” It is a pilgrimage of transformation and it is a journey that we must not stop. The journey is possible because of the free gift, but the gift is a way, a journey, a passage. The Master said, “I am the Way….” and those who have received the gift walk in that way. As we walk the journey, freedom from the world becomes ever more real. This continues until we reach the end.
Let’s review. We receive a free gift of salvation in Christ Jesus, but we have to work if we really have the gift. Clear as mud?
The gift of salvation is not one to be placed on a shelf or even in a place of honor. If we really have it, this gift is meant to be actualized and put into operation. When we unpack this free gift, we find wonderful things. We find forgiveness and everlasting love. We find the power and the grace of the Holy Spirit. We find truth. All the things needed are there to free us from our bondage. Once the gift is given, we must get to work and use the tools of faith to attain holiness and to feed the widows and orphans.
If the absolute bond of faith and works doesn’t square with you, then I ask you to answer the question asked by St. James (a book Luther would have liked to have seen dropped from the canon of Scripture): ” See how faith was done with his works (Abraham), and by his works faith was made perfect?” (James 2.22) If an answer is not easy, then this word will settle it: “faith without works is dead.”
This being the case, I think I’ll be a working man-for holiness.