The Brothers Karamazov
“There is only one salvation for you: take yourself up, and make yourself responsible for all the sins of men. For indeed it is so, my friend, and the moment you make yourself sincerely responsible for everything and everyone, you will see at once that it is really so, that it is you who are guilty on behalf of all and for all. Whereas by shifting your own laziness and powerlessness onto others, you will end by sharing in Satan’s pride and murmuring against God.” – Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
“You see, I had murdered them all myself … I had planned out each of the crimes very carefully. I had thought out exactly how a thing like that could be done, and in what style or state of mind a man could really do it. And when I was quite sure that I felt exactly like the murderer myself, of course I knew who he was.” – The Secret of Father Brown by G.K. Chesterton
A very important point is made by both Fyodor Dostoevsky and G.K. Chesterton, and it has to do with our self-perception. We Orthodox in the West all too often have the attitude that the West must be wrong about everything theological. But, that is not actually true. John Calvin had a reasonable point when he spoke about total depravity. That reasonable point is that we often do not recognize just how potentially sinful we are. But, both Dostoevsky in Russia and Chesterton in Britain recognized that truth.
We cannot fully be healed of our sin until we understand the depth of our sin. I am often surprised at how often fellow Orthodox can read the monastic literature and not realize how it is constantly pointing out how sinful we are. We read the monastic literature and draw the conclusion that we are supposed to pray more, that we are supposed to have a spiritual father, that we can become holier.
What we often miss is that the literature is pointing out that monks are constantly surprised by the depths of their sins. How often do we read about an elder using a saying to point out to a young monk how badly he is misunderstanding a particular situation or how his is caught in the midst of his sins?
When Dostoevsky is speaking about making ourselves responsible for the sins of all men, he is saying exactly the same thing as Chesterton and Calvin. Until we realize that each and every one of us is capable of any and all sins, we cannot be successful in our transformation into the likeness of God. Monks spend years in spiritual direction to become aware of how dire our situation is as sinful human beings.
The problem is that in today’s world, all too many of us begin with the idea that we need to improve ourselves, whereas we need to realize that the starting point is that our actual state is a rather horrid realization that we are deeply and thoroughly not only damaged but also in personal agreement with sin. When we realize that, we are then able to understand properly what synergy is. Synergy is not simply the cooperation between us and God. Synergy is our incredibly limited reaching out to God, as with a drop of faith, to which He responds with a flood of grace. We are indeed saved by grace, and not by works. But, that does not become apparent to us until we realize the depth of our sin.
Where some make a mistake is to then argue that our good works are worth nothing because each and every one of our good works is tainted by sin. Sadly, there is a dangerous truth present in that statement. The truth is that all our good works are tainted by a certain degree of self-serving behavior. But, it is also true that they are still good works. They are good works because they are decisions of the will to ignore the calling of the flesh, the world, and the devil in order to perform an act that may or may not benefit us personally. They are good works precisely because they are symbols of our decision to reject the world, the flesh, and the devil and to decide to follow Jesus Christ our Lord. There is a certain truth to the old American Gospel hymn, “I have decided to follow Jesus … no turning back, no turning back.” The decision is made real as we choose to do good works and resist the effort of the world, the flesh, and the devil to refuse to do them.
So, let’s get our theology straight. Good works are important. Salvation is by grace through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God. We are created for good works which God prepared in advance for us to do. Faith without works is dead. All of these statements are true. They simply require a correct understanding of what they mean.
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