An exciting new unit of study and reflection is coming tomorrow! For the past couple of weeks, I’ve reached into the “Prayer Team Mail Bag” to address questions that some of you have sent to me in the past few months. I didn’t get to all of them, but when this new unit is completed in a couple of months, I will again open the mail bag and address more questions. If you ever want to submit a question, please free to do so.
Today’s question is: A question that comes up frequently during discussion with Christians of the Protestant religions is about salvation through faith alone, not works, primarily based on Ephesians 2:8-10 (see above). I know there are example of Jesus talking about works in the New Testament. However the Protestants typically point to verse For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God—NOT BECAUSE OF WORKS, lest any man should boast. Do you have any wisdom regarding sharing our belief system when it comes to faith and/or works?
The best answer to this question is actually found in Ephesians 2:10, where after St. Paul writes, “Not because of works, lest a man should boast,” (v. 9) he writes “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus FOR good works.” I heard a podcast recently where the speaker said that God created human beings for labor, leisure and love. Even in the Garden of Eden, before the Fall, we read that “the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” (Genesis 2:15) One of God’s purposes for us is to work. He’s given each of us a talent (Matthew 25: 14-30) with the expectation that we are going to use it.
That being said, no amount of good works is going to save us without faith. And no amount of faith can save us without God’s grace. Thus, our salvation requires faith, works and grace. In James 2:17, we read, “so faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” Based on that verse, we cannot have faith without works.
I’ve used an analogy regarding this question that involves a cup, rocks and water. Take an empty cup, a pile of rocks and water. The empty cup represents faith. The cup is a structure, but when the cup is empty, it is not of much use. Faith provides a structure of what we believe, but without works, the faith is empty, like the cup. The rocks represent works. Pour out a pile of rocks and it has no structure, no organization. Works on their own lack structure, organization and purpose. The ultimate purpose of works in themselves actually is that they benefit the worker, which means works alone can become almost narcissistic and self-serving. How is that? When we work hard in school and we get good grades, the hard work benefits us. Sure, good grades might lead to a good career which even does good for other people. But goodness not done under the umbrella of Godliness can lead to something that is (intentionally or unintentionally) narcissistic.
Filling a cup with rocks illustrates the correct interplay between faith and works. However, there is still something missing. There are still empty spaces in the cup. And this is where the water comes in. Pour water in the cup filled with rocks and now the cup is truly full, there are no empty spaces. This is where grace comes in—it fills in the empty spaces.
For the Orthodox, salvation is a continuous action. It is a journey, not a finite moment. There is no “moment” when we are saved. We have the potential to be saved because Christ died on the cross for our sins. We begin to exercise that potential when we are baptized and become a child of God. We work on our salvation today, by strengthening faith, doing good works, and receiving God’s grace through the sacraments. We will ultimately be saved through God’s grace, not through our own work, or even our faith, though these things will certainly stand us in better stead when we stand before the throne of God.
Going back to the original question of being saved only through faith and not through works, we were created FOR good works. We have each been blessed with some amount of talent (each of us has different talents) and each of us has been blessed with a finite amount of time on this earth. I believe that Christ will ask us not only what we believe, but what did we do with the time and the talent He gave us? If we answer “I believe, but I did nothing to serve others,” I don’ think that answer will stand us in good stead at the awesome judgment seat we will all stand before.
Lord, thank You for the gift of this day. Thank You for both the time You have blessed me with, as well as the talent You have given me. Help strengthen my faith. Give me the desire to grow in faith. Help me to strengthen and develop my talents. And give me Your grace to fill my empty spaces, to complete was is lacking in me. Lead me to salvation. Give me the eyes to believe, the hands to work, and the grace to complete my journey. Amen.
Our salvation is a combination of faith, works and grace.