Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Grace, Faith, and Works (Eph. 2:8-10) - Part Two

Icon of St. James Adelphotheos, who wrote: "Faith without works is dead" (James 2:26)

First of all, in verse 8, St. Paul says “it is by grace that you have been saved.” What exactly is grace? Is it, as I used to explain to my listeners, nothing more than God’s unmerited favor toward us? If so, then it is primarily a feeling of pity and compassion that God feels toward us. It is God giving us what we don’t deserve. But this is not how the earliest Christians understood grace. For the early Church fathers, grace is not merely unmerited favor—an attitude of God toward the believer. Rather, grace is the very uncreated energy of God himself. It is power that God gives to those who believe in him. And it is bestowed not merely through an attitude of faith; rather, it comes to us through faithful taking of the sacraments. Grace does more than change a person’s standing before God; it also changes the very nature of the person, giving them the possibility to be conformed to the likeness of Christ.

Next, St. Paul tells us that God’s grace comes to us through faith. But what is faith? I used to think that faith was a one-time decision to trust in Christ as my Lord and Savior. All I had to do was make that decision, and I would be guaranteed eventual entrance into heaven. But soon I began to question that. Could I really just make a mental decision to admit that Jesus is my Lord and Savior, and be guaranteed eternal life, no matter what else I do? I soon realized that this is not the overall teaching of the New Testament, let alone that of the earliest Christian writers. Faith, for the New Testament writers, is not merely a one-time deal, but a lifelong process. Even the Greek word “pistis” (usually translated as “faith”) itself also means “faithfulness” or “fidelity.” St. Paul often compared faith to running a race. Obviously, no one ever wins a race simply by starting it. You have to keep running all the way until the finish line.

Finally, St. Paul states that salvation is “not of works, so that no one can boast.” Now it is certainly true that no one can earn his way into heaven. If we do not believe and trust in Jesus Christ as Lord, God, and Savior, none of our good deeds will bring us eternal life. But does this mean that works play no role whatsoever in salvation? Is salvation truly through faith alone? Far from it!

But at first glance, today’s passage seems to teach just that. After all, doesn’t St. Paul say, “not of works?” But to really understand what St. Paul is saying here, we need to keep two things in mind.

First of all, the term “works” in St. Paul’s writings, when contrasted to the word “faith,” always refers to the works of the Mosaic Law, not to good works in general. Keep in mind that the main heresy that St. Paul addressed in his epistles was the teaching of the Judaizers, who taught that in order to be saved, one had to not only accept Jesus as Messiah, but also submit to the entire Mosaic Law. St. Paul argued against this heresy in many of his epistles, including Galatians, where he says justification is not by “the works of the Law.” Here he only says “works” and not specifically “the works of the Law.” Could the Apostle be referring to any good works in general? If he were, then why would he have told the Romans, “To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger” (Romans 2:7-8).

St. Paul, the other New Testament authors, and the Lord Jesus himself all taught that salvation is indeed by faith, but not by faith alone. In fact, the only place in the Bible where the phrase “faith alone” is used is James 2:24: “You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone.” So, how do we reconcile this apparent problem? The key is in St. James’ saying “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also” (James 2:26). So you see, faith and works are not distinct realities, but rather are two sides of the same coin. True faith in Christ always includes works. Therefore works are necessary for salvation because faith is necessary for salvation.

I realize that I have just barely scratched the surface of this topic, but time limitations forbid me from going deeper. I would like to mention one more thing: it is a little off-topic, but it is important nonetheless. In verse 10, St. Paul says that “we are His workmanship.” The Greek word translated “workmanship” is poeima, which was used by secular Greek authors to describe a carefully crafted work of art, like a great sculpture, a painting, or a piece of literature. It could also be translated as “masterpieces.” Each of us has been created in God’s image, lovingly and carefully crafted by our Maker. By our sin, we mar the image of God in us, but that image is still there. And having lovingly formed us, our Creator loves us more than we can imagine. So when you are feeling down, when the world tries to convince you that you are worthless, go home and look in the mirror and say “you are God’s masterpiece.” As the bumper sticker says, “God made me, and God don’t make no junk!”


Fr. Christian Mathis said...

Hi Fr. James,

Sorry that this comment relates in no way to this post. I just listened to an interview you recently did about your journey to Orthodoxy and wanted to thank you for sharing your story. It was an excellent interview.

Fr Chris

Fr. James Early said...

Fr. Chris,

Thank you for the nice note. Kind words are always welcome, even if they have nothing to do with the post. May the Lord bless you.