Bishop Alexander (Mileant)
Translated by Fr. German Ciuba
"Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father Which is in heaven" (Matt. 5:16).
Content: The two extremes. An explanation of terms. What should we strive towards? The Holy Fathers on good works.
The Two Extremes
The age-old dispute still; each of the warring sides has dug itself deeply into its position and will not give even an inch. The Roman Catholic Church asserts that salvation is based on man's merits. Not only can a man make up for his sins by his acts and works, he can even acquire a surplus of merit, which can be used by others. In support of the correctness of their position, Roman Catholics advance those passages of Scripture which speak of the necessity of good works; for example: "We are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them" (Eph. 2:10). "I will ... that they which have believed in God might be careful to maintain good works. These things are good and profitable unto men" (Tit. 3:8). And there are other such citations.
Rejecting this doctrine, Protestants teach that all are saved by the merits of the Savior alone. The gifts of forgiveness of sins and eternal life are obtained by faith alone, which is fully sufficient for salvation. There is no need for good works, ascetic labors or moral perfection: Only believe, and you are saved.
To support the correctness of their idea, they cite, among other texts, the following words of the Apostle Paul: "By the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in His sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe; for there is no difference: for all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in His blood, to declare His righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; to declare, I say, at this time His righteousness: that He might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus. Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? Nay; but by the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law" (Rom. 3:20-28). Furthermore, "Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified" (Gal. 2:16).
Since both sides find support in Holy Scripture, which is right? It is sad to see that sometimes even Orthodox theologians get caught up in this argument about how man is saved. In their polemics with Catholics they use Protestant arguments, while in polemics with Protestants they use Catholic arguments. This creates the impression that perhaps Orthodoxy does not have its own clear teaching about salvation, and that it stands for something midway between Catholicism and Protestantism. An ordinary Christian who listens to the arguments of both sides might even be led to doubt the truthfulness of Sacred Scripture. He might think that perhaps the Apostles did not fully understand Christ's teaching, or that they had been unable to express His teaching with sufficient clarity, or even that the content of the Scriptures had been distorted by later additions made by heretics. Such an opinion was held by Martin Luther and other Protestant theologians, who disputed the authenticity of the Epistle of St. James the Apostle and the Epistle to the Hebrews, on the grounds that they speak more definitely about the necessity of good works than do the other books of the New Testament.
In reality, there are no contradictions in the Scriptures, nor could there be any. The whole dispute among non-Orthodox theologians rests on a misunderstanding. The question of salvation is reduced from the spiritual and moral sphere to the level of formal juridical categories. Salvation came to be understood not as the renewal of a sinful soul, or as the acquisition of righteousness, but rather as the result of a man's satisfying certain conditions, whether good works (as with the Roman Catholics) or faith (as with the Protestants). Then, if a man violates the required conditions, he cannot be saved.
In fact, the salvation or perdition of a man is the result of the moral state of his soul. Paradise is not simply a place, but also the state or condition of a soul that has been renewed. Christ came to earth not to move us into better living conditions, but rather to give us spiritual rebirth, to heal us of the corruption of sin, to restore to us the beauty of the image of God, and to make us children of God. "If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature" (2 Cor. 5:17).
Since the moral condition of the soul depends on the inclination of the will, a man must use force to fix his heart (cf. Luke 17:20; Matt. 11:12). This is why our doctrine of salvation cannot be considered on the level of what we have done or not done. Salvation has to be regarded as a spiritual process, carried out by the grace of Christ with the active participation of the one who is being saved. In some people this process is completed quite quickly, as with the wise thief who repented on the cross, while in others it takes place slowly and indirectly. Besides, what is spiritually required of one man or another varies with the individual, as does the level of spiritual perfection which he may reach; this is evident from the parables of the seed and the talents (cf. Matt. 13:1-23; 25:14-30).
In order to be convinced that Holy Scripture is free from any internal contradictions, we must first be clear about its terminology: specifically, what it means by works, and what it means by faith.
In those texts concerning justification by faith which are cited by Protestants, the Apostle Paul's words are directed not against good works, as such, but against the works of the law. "The works of the law" is a very specific term, by which St. Paul refers to the ritual and ceremonial aspect of the Mosaic Law: its sabbaths and feasts, circumcision, washing and rites of purification, its scrupulous distinction between clean and unclean food, and finally its whole ponderous structure of ethnic religious customs which had been built up over the ages. Imbibing "the works of the law" with their mother's milk, the Jews regarded their religion not as a force for moral regeneration, but rather as the sum total of all the requirements which had to be strictly observed in order to merit justification in the sight of God. The more one fulfilled the works of the law, the greater his reward, in purely arithmetical proportions. Thus there arose that utilitarian and mercantile mentality against which St. Paul constantly battled.
When it comes to good works as the expression of a lively faith in God, St. Paul not only did not reject them, but positively exhorted Christians to perform them diligently. For example, he writes: "With the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation" (Rom. 10:10). "As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men" (Gal. 6:10). "We are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them" (Eph. 2:10). "I will ... that they which have believed in God might be careful to maintain good works. These things are good and profitable unto men" (Tit. 3:8). "Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God" (1 Cor. 10:31). The Apostle James states it more categorically: "To him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin" (Jas. 4:17).
Thus, when we speak about works, we make a very important distinction between good works and the works of the law, which have indeed lost all their importance in Christianity. Good works are not quantities that can be weighed and measured. Their value lies not in their number but in the dedication with which they are done. For example, the small coin of a poor widow was worth more in God's eyes than the large sums which the wealthy were donating to the treasury of the Temple; "for all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living" (Mark 12:44).
Furthermore, the very same work can be accounted as good or bad, depending on the intention with which it is performed. The Pharisee of the Gospel parable spent much time in fasting and prayer, but he derived no benefit from them, because he acted to show off his good works to others; yet Anna the prophetess acquired the Holy Spirit by her fasting and prayer (cf. Luke 2:36). Those sectarian Protestants who reject the fasts and prayers of the Church as being unnecessary should note the fact that this righteous woman, by her works of abstinence and prayer, obtained God's grace even at a time when grace was not yet accessible to men, since the Holy Spirit had not yet descended upon the Apostles (cf. John 7:39).
Finally, the worth of good works lies not so much in the deeds themselves as in their manifestation of man's good qualities, his virtues. There is a definite correspondence to be noted here. Every "work" or act that a man does leaves a discernible trace in his soul, whether positive or negative. If these acts are continued more or less consistently, they gradually render a man virtuous or base. Thus, it is important to practice good works in order to acquire good habits (cf. Rom. 12:12; 1 Tim. 4:16). For this reason the Gospel says, "Blessed are they that mourn .... Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness .... Blessed are the merciful .... Blessed are the peacemakers," meaning that happy will be the lot of those who constantly and consistently do good.
Now let us try to clarify the essence of the concept of faith. When the Sacred Scriptures speak of the necessity of faith, they mean by this word not only an abstract, theoretical acknowledgement of certain truths of religion, but the consent of man's will in submitting to God. In other words, faith contains an active element, one of definite, positive actions. In all the places where saving faith is spoken of in the Holy Scriptures, we always encounter definite acts. In our ordinary, everyday life, an engineer is not valued so much for his theoretical knowledge as for his ability to apply that knowledge in practice. In the same way, God expects of us not an abstract faith, but one that is living and active. It is interesting to note that the mere knowledge of religious truth, without a corresponding way of life, not only does not profit a man, but incurs for him even greater condemnation; as Christ said, "That servant which knew his lord's will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes" (Luke 12:47; cf. Rom 2:13).
And so, a Christian's faith must include a sincere desire to become a different and better man. This demands interior effort, self-examination, repentance, a change in one's way of life, so that our faith may shine like a bright light. "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven" (Matt. 5:16).
We Strive Towards?
The question of whether man is saved by faith or by works is framed in the wrong way, because the soul's salvation cannot be separated from its moral and spiritual condition. The Son of God came to earth in order to restore to man a harmony among his thoughts, feelings and acts, and thus to reunite man with Himself. Faith cannot be set up in opposition to works; they should be united, as are the soul and body of a living human being. The more a man practices virtue, the stronger his faith grows, and the stronger his faith, the more virtuous his life will be. The two support each other.
God does not need either the bare acceptance of His existence or the mechanical performance of certain acts. He loves us so much that He offered His Only-begotten Son as a sacrifice for our redemption. What could be greater than such love? It follows that we ought to respond to God not with half-hearted love, but with a whole-hearted love which encompasses our hearts and our lives.
To sum up the essence of Christianity, St. Peter the Apostle writes to believers: "According as His divine power [i.e., God's grace] hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness ... giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue, knowledge; and to knowledge, temperance; and to temperance, patience; and to patience, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, charity. For if these things be in you, and abound, they make you that ye shall neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ." How can one become temperate without fasting? How can one become kind and charitable without giving aid to the needy? Clearly, to be virtuous in soul requires a life of practicing virtue. As St. Peter further writes, "He that lacketh these things is blind, and cannot see afar off, and hath forgotten that he was purged from his old sins" (2 Pet. 1:3, 5-9). This brief instructive passage is noteworthy in that it combines the most important elements of Christianity: personal effort and the assistance of God's grace, a virtuous life and progressive improvement of the soul.
Of course, all this requires time and patience, as the Apostle Paul teaches: "Let us not be weary in well-doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not. As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men" (Gal. 6:9-10). "Never flag in zeal, be aglow with the Spirit, serve the Lord" (Rom. 12:11, RSV).
In vain have non-Orthodox writers argued about how a man is saved. "For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love" (Gal. 5:6). Any Christian who does not work to better his soul is wasting the grace which he has received, without any profit. As our Lord said, "He that gathereth not with Me, scattereth abroad" (Matt. 12:30).
St. Paul beautifully summed up the disposition which we should constantly strive to maintain in ourselves. "Rejoice in the Lord always: and again I say, Rejoice. ... Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your request be made known unto God. ... Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. Those things, which ye have both learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, do: and the God of peace shall be with you" (Phil. 4:4, 6, 8-9).
The Holy Fathers
on Good Works
"Let every good work that we undertake be done for the glory of God, and then it will be for our glory also. The fulfillment of the commandments is holy and pure only when it is done with the Lord in mind, with the fear of God and with love for Him. The enemy of the human race (the devil) tries in every way to lead us away from such a disposition. He uses various earthly lures to make our hearts become attached to the things we consider good in this world, instead of that which is truly good, the love of God. The evil one attempts to defile and disfigure whatever good a man may do; into our fulfillment of the commandments he scatters the seeds of vainglory, doubt, murmuring or something of that sort, to turn our good work into something that is no longer good. A good work becomes truly good only when it is done for God, with humility and diligence. In such a state, all things prescribed by the commandments become easy for us, because our love for God removes all difficulties in keeping His commandments" (St. Ephrem the Syrian).
"Everyone who desires to be saved must not only avoid evil, but must also do good; as it says in the Psalms, 'Turn away from evil, and do good' (Ps. 33:14 - LXX). For example, if someone is prone to anger, not only must he stop getting angry, but he must also become meek. If someone is proud, not only must he not be proud, but he must also become humble. Every passion has an opposing virtue: pride - humility; miserliness - generosity; lechery - chastity; faint-heartedness - patience; wrath - meekness; hatred - love" (Abba Dorotheus).
"Not every good deed is reckoned a good work, but only that good deed which is done for God. The external aspects of the deed do not constitute its substance; God looks at the heart. We should be greatly humbled when we see that some passion attaches itself to every good work. What is most profitable is abstinence in moderation. It is better for us to be dishonored and to suffer, but let God's will be done in everything; you should not give yourself over to afflictions of your own will. That would be a brazen act of pride, and it may turn out that you will not be able to endure what you have taken upon yourself of your own will. A sin which is covered by a mask of goodness stealthily enters and harms the souls of those who do not test themselves against the Gospels. Gospel goodness requires self-renunciation, the renunciation of one's own will and mind" (Starets Nikon).
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Missionary Leaflet # E71
Copyright © 2001 Holy Trinity Orthodox Mission
466 Foothill Blvd, Box 397, La Canada, Ca 91011
Editor: Bishop Alexander (Mileant)
Edited by Donald Shufran