Orthodox Spiritual Life (Part III)

Apostle Bartholomew of the Twelve

Apostle Bartholomew of the Twelve

My beloved spiritual children in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,



The Synergy of Divine Grace and Human Freedom

In regard to the active life of ascesis and man's effort for deification (theosis), a very important issue arises. This concerns the correct relationship between divine grace and human freedom. The Orthodox understanding of the acquisition of grace contrasts with the heresy of Pelagianism. Pelagianism holds the view that the essential effort for salvation and sanctification is undertaken by man himself, independent of the grace of God. This heresy asserts that man can gain his salvation and 'earn' sanctification through ascetic effort and the consistent striving of his free will, apart from the initiative of Divine Grace. Pelagianism is basically as ascetical teaching and degrades the freedom of God in granting the gift of His Grace. In this view, the proper balance between man's free will and Divine Grace is lost.

The believer must be aware of this heretical over-emphasis on human freedom. He must guard himself against the danger of depending solely on human effort. The zeal and steadfast efforts of man are not sufficient to acquire Divine Grace. Indeed, in themselves they may actually lead from the road to perfection. The Saints and ascetics of the Church never rely on their own efforts in acquiring the Grace of the Holy Spirit. They always recognize that their progress is due directly to God, Who continuously strengthens and guides them on their journey, freely granting them His grace.

Clearly the Orthodox position cannot be labeled in terms of Pelagianism or eve Semi-pelagianism. The proponents of Semi-pelagianism would not have denied the need for grace in the salvation and sanctification of man. Yet they still held to the view that the initial efforts were dependent on the correct use of man's free will alone, while then allowing for a subsequent intervention of divine grace. Such notions have been falsely attributed to St. John Cassian, who is incorrectly referred to as "apparently the founder of Semi-pelagianism.

Elder Sophrony presents the Orthodox view and emphasizes the primary role of the will of God in relation to man's participation in divine grace: "God constantly pursues man, and as soon as man manifests his own aspiration towards good and to putting good into actual practice, grace is already on the threshold. Yet the action or reaction of grace does not depend on man's will. Grace comes and goes according to the will of God Whose freedom is absolute and Who is subject to no compulsion.

According to Orthodox teaching, man strives toward his salvation and acquires the grace of the Holy Spirit as a co-worker with God. The correct theological term is synergy (συνέργεια), which means working with or working together, i.e., the cooperation of man with God. Thus, the idea that the gift of grace would eliminate the role of man's effort in the struggle for the salvation is also rejected by the Orthodox Church. The Patristic Tradition does not consider divine grace and human freedom as two separate and irreconcilable principles, as is presented in Western teachings (Roman Catholicism and Protestantism). The Grace of God and the free will of man are held together in a dynamic and harmonious relationship of mutual interdependence. In Orthodox Teaching, this balance between the gift of Divine Grace and the integrity of human freedom in the struggle for salvation is maintained. In contrast to the West (Roman Catholicism and Protestantism), there is no conflict between divine grace and human freedom. (Elder Sophrony observes, "Scholars...have wrestled down the centuries trying to relate grace and the freedom of man. They forget, as it were, that there is another route to the solution of these problems--the way of existential knowledge of the reciprocity of Divine grace and human freedom. This was the road the Starets [St. Silouan] took. It is the Church's route in general." Saint Silouan the Athonite, p. 190). Saint Silouan writes, "the Grace of God does not take away freedom but only helps man to fulfill God's Commandments. Adam knew grace but he could still exercise His will."

The importance of man's free will in the working out of his salvation is paramount in patristic tradition. A key term used in this context is the Greek word 'proairesis' (προαίρεσις), which means 'faculty of free choice' 'deliberative choice.' This emphasis on man's 'proairesis' appears throughout many writings of the Holy Fathers of the Church. The deification (theosis) of man thus depends on the voluntary submission of man's free will to the will of God. Saint Mark the Ascetic summarizes the Orthodox view concerning the cooperation between divine grace and man's free choice, "Grace has been given mystically to those who have been baptized into Christ; and it becomes active within them to the extent that they actively observe the Commandments. Grace never ceases to help us secretly; but to do good--as far as lies in our power--depends on us."

(Next: The experience of Divine Grace and its effect on man)



The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God and Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.


Glory Be To GOD For All Things!


With sincere agape in His Holy Diakonia,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George