This subject recurs with sufficient frequency that I anticipate there will be a second installment at some point. In this initial treatment, I wish to demonstrate that the Orthodox treatment of works is not as a means to merit salvation, but rather is an honest assessment of the importance of works as the fruits which prove our faith - knowing that we are saved by grace through our faith.
There is probably no more predictable, or wrong, misconception about the Orthodox Faith than that thrown up constantly by Protestants who (apparently thinking they know our Faith better than we do) claim that the Orthodox Church teaches works-based salvation. No, we don’t. No, we never have. This is simple false witness. But it is born of lack of understanding, not malice. And it betrays an error of protestant “sola fide” theology that puts the souls of mislead followers at risk. While many have treated this question far more exhaustively than I ever can in a blog post, I want to try to convey first, the Orthodox belief, and second, why it is so important that Protestants take a more honest view of works, as the Church does.
So, let’s get this right out there. The Orthodox Church does not teach that one is saved by his works. Quite the contrary, we affirm that our own efforts can never merit our salvation. Don’t believe me? Well if you were Orthodox, you would pray the following every morning in your Morning Prayers:
If, then, faith in Thee saveth the desperate, behold, I believe, save me, for Thou art my God and Creator. Let faith instead of works be imputed to me, O my God, for Thou wilt find no works which could justify me. But may my faith suffice instead of all works, may it answer for, may it acquit me, may it make me a partaker of Thine eternal glory.[i]
Now does that sound like a Church that is teach works-based salvation? Quite the opposite. How long has the Church believed this? Longer than your denomination has existed, I promise. Consider the words of Clement of Rome, written in 96 A.D.:
And we, therefore…are not justified of ourselves or by our wisdom or insight or religious devotion or the holy deeds we have done from the heart, but by that faith by which almighty God has justified all men from the very beginning (ch. 32:4).
My patron, Irenaeus of Lyon, writing in the second century affirmed:
No one, indeed while placed out of reach of our Lord’s benefits, has power to procure for himself the means of salvation. So the more we receive His grace, the more we should love Him.[ii]
Or consider St. John Chrysostom’s (one of the most revered homilists in Orthodoxy) Homily on Genesis speaking of the Thief on the Cross:
He made his way into paradise before the apostles with a mere word, on the basis of faith alone, the intention being for you to learn that it was not so much a case of his sound values prevailing as the Lord's lovingkindness being completely responsible.[iii]
When asked to encapsulate the Orthodox view, I like to say that Orthodoxy teaches that we are saved by Grace through Faith, which shows forth in our works. Even most protestants will agree with me about that, yet they resist the clear teachings of the Church that give life to that concept.
For just as St. John Chrysostom acknowledged grace and faith in the salvation of the thief, he also warned the faithful:
So that you may not suppose, when you hear that he chose us, that faith alone is sufficient, he goes on to refer to manner of life. This, he says, is the reason and the purpose of his choice—that we should be holy and blameless… Being holy is a matter of sharing in faith; being blameless is a matter of living an irreproachable life.[iv]
His contemporary, St. Basil the Great, was even more explicit:
He who would obey the gospel must first be purged of all defilement of the flesh and the spirit that so he may be acceptable to God in the good works of holiness.
Mere renouncement of sin is not sufficient for the salvation of penitents, but fruits worthy of penance are also required of them. [v]
It is at this point the Protestants begin to object that such instruction to the faithful is not biblical, that it defies the premise of “faith alone” or “grace alone.” Before we get into that, we should remember that “faith alone” appears exactly one time in the New Testament. In James 2:24, which explicitly rejects the idea of “faith alone.”[vi] This is where sola fide loses its grounding. It simply isn’t biblical when you add the sola to the fide. Indeed, there are multiple instances of passages speaking of justification by faith, but without the word alone. Why is this? Because, unless you find yourself crucified next to the Lord, faith never exists alone. It is shown by its fruits, the good works that accompany it. Indeed, James tells us explicitly that faith without works is dead.[vii] For some reason, the Protestants, even while acknowledging that truth faith – saving faith! – gives rise to good works, cling to that word alone, as if to say, “well maybe James says that but MY FAITH is good enough.”
But this is that very dangerous thing to their souls. Everything in scripture tells us otherwise. In the Gospel of Matthew, we read that “the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works.”[viii] The Apostle Paul, the hero to the sola fide crowd tells us “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad.”[ix] And if you still resist this idea, I beg you, for the sake of your immortal soul, read the Parable of the Last Judgment.
31 When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: 32 And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: 33 And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. 34 Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: 35 For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: 36 Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. 37 Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? 38 When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? 39 Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? 40 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. 41 Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: 42 For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: 43 I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not. 44 Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee a hungered, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? 45 Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me. 46 And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.[x]
There is absolutely nothing in scripture that gives us any hint that on the dread day of Judgment, the quality of our faith will be what is measured on some intangible, aesthetic scale.
“Oh, I like his faith, it is sharp and crisp, go with the sheep.”
“This one’s faith has a tinge of rust, but it is ornate, you go with sheep.”
“Oh, this poor sinner, look at the jagged edges on his faith, off to the goats with you.”
That’s nonsense. Our faith is shown in our works. Biblically, this is the scale that will be used. No works can every merit our salvation by their own sake. That is heresy and that is not Orthodox. But our faith can only be determined by the fruits which have shown forth and the apostles and Christ are very clear that our deeds will be the measure of that.
So yes, the Orthodox bishops. priests, and the early Church fathers, can all be heard urging the faithful to do good works. But these works are not done for their own merit. They are not done out of a belief that they assure our salvation. Rather we understand that, being filled with the Holy Spirit and with faith in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, we must show forth that faith in our works.
Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them. Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.[xi]
By our works we are not merely crying “Lord, Lord” in vain, but are showing our active acceptance and cooperation with God in his plan for our salvation. It all begins with faith. And the works which flow from true, living faith do not credit he who works, but glorify God who, by his grace, enables us to accomplish any good thing. “Neither is he that plants anything, nor he that waters, but He that gives the increase, God."[xii]
This subject truly is far too great, and its significance too important to treat in the short medium of a blog. Yet, I hope this post is helpful in two ways. First, that while we do believe in the importance of works as a way to show forth our faith,[xiii] we do not deign to believe any earthly human work will save us. It is our faith that saves us, by the grace of God[xiv]. However, second, that it is a dangerous, deadly path to presume that simply declaring one’s faith on one day or every day is an assurance of salvation. Scripture is quite consistent that we will be judged by our deeds – for that is how our faith is proven. Again, the works won’t save, but they will give testimony of the faith we declare with our lips. Believing works to be “unnecessary” is simply tempting the Lord. James addresses this quite specifically, and should be read repeatedly if you doubt this fact.
It is all to common to see Protestants mouth the idea that we are called to good works through our faith (we are indeed!) and then dismiss the importance of the works to which they agree we are called. The Orthodox understanding of salvation treats works honestly, not as something to be downplayed out of a fear of diminishing the importance of faith. We view the two as inextricably intertwined, to borrow a legal phrase. If you have a living faith, you will have works. If you reject works, you have no real faith. But when it comes time to be numbered with the sheep or the goats, be sure you have fed the hungry man, not just thought happy thoughts about God as you walked by.
[i] E.g. Prayer Book. 4th ed. Jordanville, N.Y.: Holy Trinity Monastery, 2011, p. 24.
[ii] Against Heresies, Bk. IV, ch. XIII.
[iii] John Chrysostom, Sermon 7 on Genesis, in St. John Chrysostom, Eight Sermons on the Book of Genesis, pp. 123-24 (2004), Robert C. Hill translator. In fairness, other Orthodox commentators remark on the Thief’s confession as an action drawing derision from Christ to himself. Others mention an oral tradition that this thief was one who had mercy on Joseph and Mary as they fled to Egypt with the Christ child during the slaughter of the Holy Innocents. Chrysostom credits neither, however.
[iv] Homilies on Ephesians, 1, 1-2
[v] The Morals, 2, 1 and 1, 3
[vi] “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”
[vii] James 2:20
[viii] Matthew 16:27
[ix] 2 Corinthians 5:10
[x] Matthew 25:31-46
[xi] Matthew 7:19-21
[xii] 1 Cor 3:7
[xiii] “Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works.” James 2:18
[xiv] This is probably a topic for another blog post, but I also believe the Protestants to be gravely in error when they say it is faith that saves. This presumes that us sinful humans can ever manifest a faith pure enough to merit salvation. We can’t. It is GRACE that saves us because of our faith, imperfect though it may be.