How Are Saved? (Part II)

Venerable Pachomius the Great, Founder of Coenobitic Monasticism

Venerable Pachomius the Great, Founder of Coenobitic Monasticism

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

by Father Theodore Stylianopouls, Professor of New Testament at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Theological Seminary

Then there is Saint Paul. The Apostle is known as the foremost advocate of justification by faith. In the above text of Gal. 2:16-20, Saint Paul seems to say something very different than His Master about faith and works. These words of Saint Paul reflect his conversion by which he left behind the Law of Moses and joined Christ wholeheartedly. Previously the Mosaic Law was the center of his life, but after Damascus Christ became the core of his being. Christ dwelt in Saint Paul: "It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me" (Gal. 2:20). From this transformed perspective Saint Paul contrasted and opposed faith and works. He did so categorically: "A person is not justified by works of the Law but through faith in Jesus Christ; even we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of the Law, because by works of the Law shall no one be justified" (Gal. 2:16). The key to this passage is to see that Saint Paul is referring not to ethical works but to "works of the Law" (erga tou nomou, namely, the Mosaic Law.

What are the works of the Mosaic Law? Anyone who studies Galatians carefully will note the Apostle is referring to the Jewish religious practices of circumcision, dietary laws, and festivals (Gal. 2:2-5, 12; 4:9; 5:1-6, 12; 6:12-15). The same reference to "works of the Law" is also primary in the Letter to the Romans (Romans 3:19-20, 27-30). For St. Paul, such practices were no longer necessary for salvation. Christ had fulfilled their purpose and also terminated them at the same time (Romans 8:4; 10:4). For Saint Paul, to adopt such religious practices as some Gentile Christians were doing, was nothing less than betrayal of the gospel (Gal. 1:6-9). He declared: "I testify again to every man who receives circumcision that he is bound to keep the whole Law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the Law; you have fallen away from grace" (Gal. 5:3-4). Saint Paul is not opposing faith to ethical works but to the "works of the Law."

But what does Saint Paul say about ethical works? Do ethical works have a place in salvation? The answer is, most certainly, yes. In the same Letter to the Galatians, Saint Paul uses a striking expression: "Faith working through love" (Gal. 5:6). Yes, faith is primary, but faith working through love--loving deeds. Good deeds are inseparable from and essential to the life of faith. Otherwise, according to Saint Paul, those who commit sinful acts and do not repent of them--and he names them: fornication, idolatry, sorcery, selfishness, drunkenness, and the life--"will not inherit the Kingdom of God" (Gal. 5:21; see also 1 Cor. 6:9-11). In other words, those who do such things, including Christians to whom he is writing, will suffer ultimate loss of salvation. Toward the end of Galatians Saint Paul pens the following admonition as well: "Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for whatever a person sows, that he will also reap...Let us not grow weary in doing good (to agathon), for in dues season we shall reap, if we do not lose heart...Let us do good to all, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith" (Galatians 6:7, 9-10). We come to Christ as sinners and are justified by faith apart from good works. But once we connect with Christ and enjoy a saving relationship with Him, we ought to honor Him with good works because we love Christ and also because our final judgment will hinge in part on the criterion of good deeds. Saint Paul states: "For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body" (2 Cor. 5:10).

According to Saint Paul, not only loving deeds but also the Sacraments of Baptism (Romans 6:1-11) and the Holy Eucharist (1 Cor. 10:16-22; 11:23-32) are decisive to salvation. Read carefully Saint Paul's Letter to the Romans, chapters 1-6. Note how often in chapters 1-5 he speaks of faith, the importance of faith, and the blessings that come from faith. But when do all these blessings take place? What is the event at which salvation truly takes hold? Baptism! That's the answer to Saint Paul gives in Romans, chapter 6. All of chapter 6 is about Baptism and life after Baptism. For Saint Paul, it is in Baptism that the believer is united with Christ, dies to the power of sin, and receives new life in Christ (6:1-11). Baptized Christians ought to use their bodies no longer "as instruments of sin but as weapons of righteousness" (6:12-13). Life after baptism, says Saint Paul, includes the responsibility to live by the "standard of teaching" (typon didaches) which Christians have been taught (6:17). Otherwise, even for Christians, "the wages of sin is death" (6:23). Saint Paul is clear-cut about the criterion of final judgment: "God will render to every person according to his works; to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, God will give eternal life; but for those who …obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury (Romans 2:6-8).

Let us sum up the main points. The work of salvation belongs entirely to God. It is God through Christ and the Holy Spirit, who has the divine power to rescue us from the forces of sickness, evil, death and the devil. It is God through Christ and the Holy Spirit who alone provides justification, forgiveness and new life to sinners who come to Him with faith. And God provides salvation as a most amazing and unceasing gift to all sincere seekers.

From our side, the question is about receiving and using the gift of salvation. The gift is offered, but if we do not receive it, we don't have it, and certainly cannot use it. God offers the gift. We can choose to accept it or reject it. As Orthodox Christians we do not believe in predestination. Jesus said: "Whoever wants to come after Me, let him take up his cross and follow Me" (St. Mark 8:34). The gift and the challenge to follow Jesus through a life of faith and works coincide.

The reception of the gift of salvation is not a one-time event but a lifetime process. Saint Paul employs the verb "to save" (sozesthai) in the past tense ("we have been saved," Romans 8:24; Eph. 2:5); in the present tense ("we are being saved," 1 Corinthians 1:18; 15:2), and in the future tense ("we will be saved," Romans 5:10). He can think ever of justification as a future event and part of the final judgment (Romans 2:13, 16). For Saint Paul, Christians are involved in a lifetime covenant with God in which we work, planting and watering, but it is "only who gives growth" (1 Cor. 3:7). We are "co-workers with God" (synergoi Theou, 1 Cor. 3:9; 1 Thess. 3:2). (Not "co-workers under God" as some translations would have it). The mystery of salvation is a duet, not a solo. It is a lifetime engagement with God. It has ups and downs, twists and turns, with opportunities to grow in the love of God, knowing that we can turn to Him again and again and receive forgiveness and a new birth. When we come to Christ as sinners, we have no works to offer Him, but only faith and repentance. But once we come to Him and receive the gift of salvation, we enter into a sacred covenant to honor him with good works. We read in Ephesians: "For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God…[we are] created in Christ Jesus for good works" (Ephesians 2:8-10).

The teaching of the New Testament is that God's grace, our free will, and our faith and good works, are intimately connected. The Holy Spirit energizes in us both faith and good works as we thirst for and seek God's grace. Neither faith nor good works can be presented as merit before God, but only as return gifts in humility, love, and thanksgiving. Let us not forget as well the sober words of Saint James the Apostle: "Faith by itself, it has no works, is dead…faith completed by works…a person justified by works and not by faith alone" (St. James 2:17, 22, 24). By free will, faith, and earnest labors, we work together with the grace of God in the awesome gift and mystery of salvation. As Saint Paul puts it: "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work His good pleasure" (Phil. 2:12-13). To God Almighty, together with the Son and the Holy Spirit, be praise and worship forever. Amen.

Please note: Those of you confused, or lacking, the true understanding of salvation, should now feel well informed. Please pass this information to your children, relatives, friends and fellow parishioners that may not have email.


"Glory Be To GOD For All Things!"--Saint John Chrysostom


With sincere agape in Our Risen Lord, Jesus Christ,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George