Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Saved By Faith Or By Works?

During a recent conversation with a Baptist acquaintance of mine, we compared notes on how we view salvation. The general perception in the Protestant world is that Catholics and Orthodox alike are 'works' oriented. I only reinforced this perception when I told him I did not believe in 'once saved, always saved'. He immediately replied saying, "So, salvation is a crapshoot then."

He had withdrawn from the faith back in his college days but has been strongly living out his Baptist faith since then. We had to end our conversation abruptly because I had to get back to work - but I sent him this reply to assure him salvation is not a crapshoot...

It was great talking to you this morning - I wish we could have had more time to fill in the details of this engaging topic, but I couldn't just leave you with the impression that salvation is a "crapshoot" in the Orthodox world. So, I am sending you this email to hopefully clarify things.

Salvation is a gift. It is the most wonderful gift ever. It is also an incredibly expensive gift. As one of my pastor friends put it, "Salvation (grace) is free, but not cheap". With this gift comes responsibility. To whom much is given, much is required. The parable of the talents emphasizes this point. Jesus also emphasizes this point in another passage -

"He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes...Remain in me and I will remain in you..."(John 15:2ff)
This passage goes on to say "if you remain in me..." and "if you obey my commands...".

We are responsible. We are to remain in Christ and feed on Him. We are then loved by the Father and bear much fruit. He is our salvation. Bible study and reading are important, but it isn't our salvation - Christ is our salvation. We feed on Him in the Eucharist, through purposeful and intentional prayer, through fasting to identify with his sufferings and to continually soften our hearts toward Him, and through repentance and confession to purge our souls of pride, to "prune our branches". These "touch points" of grace, of God's Presence on the earth, are what empower us to love, to give, to obey His commandments and bear much fruit. This is why the Orthodox Church places heavy emphasis on regular church attendance, keeping the church fasts and following a disciplined prayer rule. This is what keeps you on the path, what keeps you humble and in obedience to God's perfect will. If you stop doing these things, then it is a crapshoot, because you have left the well-trodden path laid out before you to assure your growth and to bear much fruit.

Grace, from an Orthodox perspective, is God's empowering life and energy. So, to be saved by grace means appropriating that life and energy toward good works which he has prepared in advance for us to do. To neglect this empowering life and energy is to neglect our salvation -
"Therefore we ought to give the more earnest heed to the things which we have heard, lest at any time we should let them slip. For if the word spoken by angels was steadfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense of reward; How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation; which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed unto us by them that heard him; God also bearing them witness, both with signs and wonders, and with divers miracles, and gifts of the Holy Ghost, according to his own will?" (Hebrews 2:1-4)

So, yes, we can stray from the path, and it is a dangerous place to be. Thank God that he put you back despite your wanderings. There is a sure road to salvation, and not everyone who calls Jesus "Lord" is on it. It isn't a crapshoot, but a path of discipleship, obedience and humility in Christ and in the Church He established to produce saintly beings whose lives bring Him glory in this age and in the age to come. You stay on this path, then your salvation is assured, but if you leave it, only God knows whether you will be saved, as it is not up to me, or my priest, or anyone else to judge someone in that regard.

I want to leave you with one of my favorite New Testament passages that summarizes this theme perfectly. It is 2 Peter 1:2-11:

"Grace and peace be yours in abundance through the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord. His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But if anyone does not have them, he is nearsighted and blind, and has forgotten that he has been cleansed from his past sins. Therefore, my brothers, be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure. For if you do these things, you will never fall, and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ."
Since Peter states that we should be eager to make our calling and election sure, it emphasizes how important our responsibility is to stay on the path.

As always, it was great talking to you. I hope this clarifies why our salvation is neither a crapshoot, nor something to take for granted.

God's peace my friend,



Kevin said...


Very nicely put! I'm going to quote part of this on my blog... hope that's okay. Glad to find your blog, too.

Thomas Kevin
Into the Light

Nicodemus said...


Certainly feel free anytime to quote something you like. I hope to interact more with the Orthodox blog community this year.

This post represents a knee-jerk reaction to the phrase "crapshoot salvation" - it was such an alarming phrase, but one which succinctly expresses how those outside the Orthodox Church perceive it. I never did get a response back from him - maybe it struck a chord with him as well.

Grace said...

I'm a virtual stranger to Protestant theology, since I never got all that involved in a Prot church before landing in Orthodoxy, so I don't even understand how this "faith, not works" thing is defensible.

Wouldn't you have to ignore St. Paul saying that he was *working out* his salvation with fear and trembling? Wouldn't you have to ignore him saying he was running the race, fighting the good fight and all the other things that indicate that he considered himself to be involved in a very active and deadly earnest struggle? He certainly doesn't give me the impression that he believed that the final result was some kind of foregone conclusion and he could just walk on up to the finish line. And don't you pretty much have to write off the whole book of James? And these are just the things I can come up with off the top of my head. I certainly can't think of anything that would give the idea that God's salvation just comes down to "making your decision" ... and only ONE time at that.

If your guy felt like exaggerating your position to imply that you were saying salvation is a crapshoot, I'd have to say that his sounds to me like he thinks salvation is a cakewalk.

Thank goodness you were there to give him something to think about. I would hope that he wouldn't be shaken up by having to hear these things, but man! This stuff just boggles my mind.

Nicodemus said...

Grace - this idea of 'by faith alone' has it origins in Luther's protest against the Roman Catholic Church. I don't think he intended for it to mean what it means today where you simply say the prayer of salvation and, as you said, walk up to the finish line. But, if you have never watched the recent movie titled "Luther", I think you would gain much insight about him watching it - especially knowing what you know about the Orthodox side of things and how we handle heresy and error in the Church.