Written by Dr. Vladimir Moss
CAN WORKS WITHOUT FAITH BE GOOD?
The Holy Scriptures teach us that faith without works is dead, but also that works without faith are fruitless for salvation, however many and great those works are. “A brother cannot redeem, shall a man redeem?” asks David. “He shall not give to God a ransom for himself, nor the price of the redemption of his own soul, though he hath labored forever, and shall live to the end” (Psalm 48.7-8).
The reason for this is clear: right faith in God is the very beginning and foundation of all good things and the very condition of all that is truly good. For “what is not of faith is sin” (Romans 14.23). However, “faith by itself, without works, is dead” (James 2.17). “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2.10). Without works, faith does not work (for salvation). It does not show itself for what it is, the all-powerful mover of mountains, both physical and spiritual. Rather, it shows itself to be pitifully powerless. For, as St. Savva of Serbia said: “Neither can our striving to live a good life without the right faith in God be of any avail to us, nor can the right faith without good works make us worthy of seeing the face of the Lord. So let them go together in order to make us perfect without any blemish. Faith can save us only if it is united with and expressed in good works, inspired by the love of God.”
Now let us look a little more closely at this teaching…
“What shall we do,” asked the people of Christ, “that we may work the works of God?” And Christ answered them: “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him Whom He sent” (John 6.28-29). But this is puzzling. Is there, then, no difference between faith and works? If faith is “the work of God”, then is it sufficient only to believe, as the Protestants claim?
No: the word “faith” in the writings of the Evangelists, Apostles and Holy Fathers often denotes not only the mustard seed that is “faith alone” but also the tree that grows out of the seed, just as the word “tree” often signifies not only the wood of the trunk and branches but also the leaves and the flowers on the leaves.
Two examples will suffice to illustrate this point. First, the Lord told the sinful woman who washed His feet with her tears and anointed them with myrrh: “Thy faith hath saved thee; go in peace” (Luke 7.50). Again, we may wonder: why does the Lord say that the woman’s faith has saved her when it is her active work of love that strikes us most (and annoys Simon the Pharisee)? The Lord Himself provided the answer a little earlier when He said: “Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much”. So it is her work of love that has saved her; only it is seen as so inextricably linked with her faith in Him that it is called “faith”.
Blessed Theophylact in his commentary on this passage makes the same linkage, almost equivalence, between faith and love: “’ Her sins are forgiven because she loved much, meaning, ‘because she showed great faith’.”
It follows that faith without love cannot be the faith that saves. St. James makes the same point when he points out that “even the demons believe – and tremble” (James 2.19). The demons have a very strong belief in the existence and omnipotence of God – acquired, no doubt, through their brief sojourn in heaven and consequent expulsion from it. But this bare faith is without love: in fact, it is nourished, not by love, but by hatred. Therefore it is not “faith” in the sense used by the Lord in speaking to the sinful woman: it is not the faith that saves.
Let us now turn to our second example from the Gospel, that of the good thief on the cross. The good thief was saved by faith alone, without any works. For, as St. Ambrose of Milan writes, “Paradise received the thief in the same hour it received Christ. Faith alone won the thief this honour”.
And yet there must be something special about this “faith alone” if it allowed the thief to be the very first man to enter Paradise. St. John Maximovich explains why it was so special: the thief believed that Christ was a King, moreover a King over a spiritual Kingdom beyond and above death – as he said, “Remember me, O Lord, when Thou comest into Thy Kingdom” (Luke 23.42) – when He looked anything but a King, when it was most difficult, from a human point of view, to believe in Him as anything but the most wretched of mortals. To believe in Christ as King and as God at the very moment of His maximum humiliation, when He was not working miracles or risen from the dead, when even His closest disciples had deserted him and the whole world had rejected Him – that was truly a podvig, a spiritual feat of the highest quality.
But to speak of a feat is surely to speak of a work… Yes, the thief’s confession of faith in Christ the King was truly a good work, a quite exceptionally good work. But are we not then saying that the good thief deserved salvation as a reward for his exceptionally, astonishingly good work?
No, we do not receive salvation as a reward, as if we deserved it. For salvation is given gratis, for free, as a gift of grace. “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” (Ephesians 2.9). And again, we read in the Tenth Morning Prayer:”O Saviour, save me by Thy grace, I pray Thee. For if Thou shouldest save me for my works, this would not be grace or a gift, but rather a duty.” But then why do we praise the thief? For whether we call his feat faith or works, the fact is that it is the product of God’s grace, not of human effort, “lest any man should boast”. But then, if it is all God’s doing and God’s gift, what is so exceptional or astonishing or praiseworthy about it?
Both faith and works are the produce of the synergy – that is, cooperation – between the grace of God and the will of man, a mystery denied by the Protestant Reformers with catastrophic results for Western Christianity.
First, although faith is a gift of God, we can encourage its reception by our good works. Thus when the angel appeared to Cornelius the Centurion, he said: “Cornelius, your prayer has been heard, and your alms are remembered in the sight of God. Send therefore to Joppa and call Simon here…” (Acts 10.11-12). So while Cornelius’ alms did not justify him, since they were not done in the name of Christ, they did attract the grace of the faith to him.
In his famous conversation with Motovilov, St. Seraphim of Sarov stressed that only deeds done in the name of Christ are effective for salvation. But then, citing the case of Cornelius, he goes on: “The Lord uses all His Divine means to give such a man for his good works the opportunity not to lose his reward in the future life. But to this end, he must begin here by a right faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, Who came into the world to save sinners, and by winning for ourselves the grace of the Holy Spirit Who brings into our hearts the Kingdom of God and lays for us the path to win the blessings of the future life. Wherefore the Lord said to the Hebrews: ‘If ye had not seen, ye would have had no sin; but now ye say, We see, your sin remaineth with you.’ A man like Cornelius finds favour with God for his deeds, though done not for the sake of Christ; let him then but believe in the Son of God and all his works will be accounted as done for Christ’s sake just for faith in Him. But in the opposite case, a man has no right to complain that his good has had no effect. It never does, unless the good deed is done for Christ’s sake since good done for Him both claims in the life of the world to come a crown of righteousness and in this present life fills men with the grace of the Holy Spirit…”
Again, in the Life of the Holy Martyrs Menas and Hermogenes (December 10) we read that Hermogenes, although “reared an impious idolater, was a good, kind man. Although he did not know Christ as the true God, he nevertheless honoured Him by his deeds, ‘doing by nature the things contained in the law’. One night, while sailing to Egypt with his troops, Hermogenes had a dream in which he saw three radiant men saying to him, ‘Know, Hermogenes, that God takes account of even the least good work; therefore he has accepted your deeds, although they are not virtuous in every respect. It is His desire that your voyage which was intended to bring about the death of many, should instead redound to your immortal glory and honour.’” And so the persecutor found the true faith and the crown of martyrdom…
So God takes account of all our deeds, whether done for His sake or not, but He rewards with salvation and the grace of the Holy Spirit only those deeds that are truly good, being done in the name of Christ.
It follows from this, secondly, that faith is not given in an all or nothing way, as the Protestants assert. For just as good works can be abundant or not, and the grace of the Holy Spirit can be abundant in a man or not, so with faith.
Faith has degrees, because there are degrees of synergy, or cooperation, between the gift of God and the will of rational beings.
Since all knowledge of the truth is from God, we cannot deny that even the faith of the demons, the faith that makes them tremble, is given by God. But this faith serves only for their condemnation since they do not develop it or act in accordance with it. It is a minimal faith, a last surviving relic from the demons’ previous state of blessedness, which only serves to increase their spiritual torment in this life and in the age to come. For the torments of fallen men and angels in gehenna will be immeasurably increased by their consciousness – a consciousness that will not go away precisely because it is sustained by their undying faith in God – that they have unjustly and irreparably offended His Goodness.
At the other extreme, we have the faith of the greatest of the saints and martyrs. The supreme paradigm of this maximal faith described in the Scriptures is the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham, “the father of the faithful”. For, as the Lord said, “Abraham rejoiced to see My Day and he saw and was glad” (John 8.56). But he showed his faith by his works. And so: “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, of whom it was said, ‘In Isaac your seed shall be called’, concluding that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead” (Hebrews 11.17-19).
Abraham’s faith had several aspects that, taken together, increased its value a hundredfold. First, he lived at a time when the whole world, following the destruction of the Tower of Babel, was plunged in paganism. As far as we know, he did not have the support of a priesthood, or a large body of believers, but sustained his spiritual life through a direct, one-to-one relationship with God alone.
Secondly, he believed the promises God had made to him, that he would become the father of many nations, even when God told him to sacrifice his beloved son, without whom those promises could not be fulfilled. The temptation to disbelieve the promises as if they did not come from God, but were a product of his imagination, must have been enormous. Still greater must have been the temptation to reject God’s command to kill his son as prelest’. After all, was not child-sacrifice the practice of the surrounding Canaanite nations, who sacrificed to the pagan gods of Baal, Ishtar, and Moloch? Not only natural paternal affection but also plain common-sense, must have conspired to tempt him to disobey.
But Abraham knew with absolute certainty that it was the one true God Who had spoken to him. He refused to put natural affection above the Love of God, or common-sense above the Wisdom of God, or conventional morality above the Goodness of God. And if believing in God’s promises while doing such violence to the heart and reasoning of the natural man meant that he was required also to believe in the resurrection from the dead, then so be it – Abraham was up to it! Therefore Abraham’s faith was truly maximal, conforming exactly to St. Symeon the Theologian’s maximalist definition of faith as “readiness to die for Christ’s sake, for His commandments, in the conviction that such death brings life.”
“Do you not see,” says the Apostle James, that Abraham’s “faith was working together with his works, and by works, faith was made perfect” (James 2.22) – that is, was maximal.
Since faith can be minimal and maximal and every degree in between, it cannot be the all-or-nothing concept of the Reformers. We do not either have faith or not have it: we have it to a certain degree; it can be weaker or stronger. Our faith is invariably weaker than it can and should be, so we are obliged to pray with the Apostles: “Lord, increase our faith” (Luke 17.5).
Since prayer can increase the gift of faith, it follows that God does not give the gift of faith arbitrarily. This was another issue that tormented and divided the Reformers. For the doctrine of salvation by faith alone, in which “faith” was understood in the most restricted, almost minimalist sense that overlapped in no way with any of the “good works” that corrupt Catholicism had so discredited in the eyes of Protestants, seemed to imply that God distributed faith to some and not to others – and therefore salvation to some and not to others – for no reason whatsoever. For if good works are quite distinct from faith, and therefore irrelevant to salvation, it becomes meaningless – or rather, quite false – to make even such unremarkable statements as: “Abraham was given great faith because he was a good man”, or “Judas was given little faith because he was a bad man”. If Abraham was good, and Judas bad, this had nothing to do with the fact that the one was given great faith and the other little, nor with the fact that the one is now in Paradise (which is called “the bosom of Abraham” in his honour) and the other in hell. God just decided it that way, predestining the one to salvation and the other to damnation. And there was nothing either could have done to avoid their fate…
The terrifying arbitrariness of salvation and damnation in the Reformers’ (especially Calvin’s) theology of predestination, which followed logically from their doctrine of salvation by faith alone, was so repulsive to the moral sense of Western man that gradually, in the course of the last five centuries, it has evolved into precisely the opposite doctrine that we find so much in vogue today: that a man’s faith is irrelevant to his salvation, that what is important is only his works, that all you need is “love” understood in the most superficial, sentimental and ecumenical way.
Let us now try and reconstruct the doctrine of faith and works in an Orthodox manner, avoiding the pitfalls and extremes of Western theology.
Salvation is indeed a gift of God, a gift of grace. This gift is given, in the first place, in and through the correct, heartfelt belief in, and open confession of, the Orthodox faith. “For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth, confession is made unto salvation” (Romans 10.10). So the confession of faith that the catechumen makes just before his baptism is at the same time his first work of faith and his first step on the path to salvation. It is faith at work, faith that works for salvation.
The correct confession works for our salvation, and it is necessary for our salvation. But it is not sufficient for our salvation. If our works of faith consist only of the confession of the Orthodox faith, then we are by no means guaranteed salvation. For the demons believe and tremble – and could probably write much better treatises on the Nicene Creed than we! Even a correct dogmatic faith combined with a practical faith springing from dogmatic faith that is strong enough to move mountains is not sufficient for salvation. For St. Paul says: “though I have all faith so that I could remove mountains, but have no love, I am nothing” (I Corinthians 13.2). But this gives us the clue to the kind and intensity of faith that is sufficient for salvation; it is “that faith which worketh through love” (Galatians 5.6).
The “faith which worketh through love” – that is the clue to a correct understanding of the doctrine of faith and works. True, it is faith alone that saves. But by “faith” is here meant the “faith that worketh through love”. And the faith that worketh through love is manifested in good works. It is the faith that saves, not the works. But at the same time, it is the presence of the works that demonstrates the presence of the faith.
That is why, according to the Holy Scriptures, we are judged in accordance with our works. “God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12.14). “They profess to know God, but they deny Him by their works” (Titus 1.16). “I know your works: you have the name of being alive, but you are dead. Awake, and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death, for I have not found your works perfect in the sight of My God” (Revelation 3.1-2). “’ Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord henceforth.’ ‘Blessed indeed,’ says the Spirit, ‘that they may rest from their labours, for their works follow them.’” (Revelation 14.13). “Behold, I am coming soon, bringing My reward, to repay everyone according to his works” (Revelation 22.12).
So we are saved by our faith, but we are judged by our works. We are saved by the faith that worketh through love, and we are judged according to the love (or lack thereof) that our works manifest. The sinful woman was saved by her faith, which was manifested in works of love towards Christ. The thief on the cross was also saved by faith, which was manifested in another work of love: in rebuking his fellow-thief for slandering Him, and in recognizing that, in contrast to himself and his fellow thief, Christ had done nothing worthy of His punishment. For “we indeed [suffer] justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong” (Luke 23.41).
In addition to the good works that are the fruit of faith and the grace received in baptism, there are the “fruits worthy of repentance” (Matthew 3.8). This phrase was coined by St. John the Baptist when he saw the Pharisees coming to his baptism and rebuked them for their hypocrisy. For it was no use this ”brood of vipers” coming to his “baptism of repentance” if they had no intention of repenting.
This concept provides us with the clue to understanding why God’s choice of who is to receive the grace of faith is not arbitrary. For there are those who act in such a way as to prepare the ground for faith and those who do not. The Roman centurion whose servant Christ healed prepared the ground for faith – and in a great measure, for the Lord had not found “such great faith, no, not in Israel” (Matthew 8.10) – by his helping the Jews to build a synagogue. Similarly, the Roman centurion Cornelius prepared the ground for receiving the preaching of the faith by St. Peter through his prayers and almsgiving, which were “remembered in the sight of God” (Acts 10.31). Even the Apostle Paul, whose persecution of the Christians before his conversion could hardly be called a work of repentance, nevertheless through his zeal for the truth, however mistakenly conceived, together with his profound repentance after the Lord appeared to him on the road to Damascus, prepared the ground for receiving enlightenment in Holy Baptism at the hands of the Apostle Ananias.
So we may speak about two kinds of good works: the “fruits worthy of repentance” that we accomplish before baptism and full enlightenment in the faith, and those good works that we accomplish after baptism, which are the fruit precisely of that faith. The good works accomplished before faith are like the farmer’s plowing of his field in preparation for sowing. The reception of faith and enlightenment in baptism are the sowing of the seed itself. And the good works accomplished after enlightenment are the germination and flowering of the seed. Neither the works that go before nor the works that come after, justify us in the sense of giving us salvation: only pure faith in the salvation that Christ has accomplished for us saves. But the works that go before make us in a sense worthy to receive the gift of faith, while the works that come after show that that faith is genuine and deep …
So the Lord wishes that all men be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth (I Timothy 2.4) by receiving the faith that works through love. But only those who prepare the ground for the reception of that faith – and keep the ground well tilled thereafter, so as not to lose the faith again – will, in fact, be saved. There is, therefore, no arbitrariness here, but the justice of “the Father Who without partiality judges according to each man’s work” (I Peter 1.17).
December 12/25, 2019.