"For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast."-- with corresponding prooftexts from the second chapter of St. James' epistle (vv. 14, 17, 20, and 26, in particular). The resulting fights (for that is what they usually are; few discussions of this topic seldom ascend into the realm of true, civil, reasoned argumentation) rarely amount to anything more than people taking these two supposedly opposing sides and beating each other over the head with the aforementioned prooftexts. My problem with this scenario isn't even in the use of prooftexts (at least not primarily, though I do find the practice abhorrent--context should always be provided, elaboration always made); rather, the problem I have with this technique is how it takes two great saints of our Church and makes them appear to be "versus" one another. My friend and fellow blogger Alan asked me if I would elaborate on the idea that, while both serious Evangelicals and serious Orthodox would agree that it is impossible for apostles of the Lord to be divided dogmatically, differences lie in our understanding of where exactly they harmonize in their doctrine (I agreed to go into that in this post, in the comments). So, without further ado, I shall attempt (that being the key word here) to set forth the Orthodox position on the insanely broad topic of the harmony of Ss. Paul and James in regard to faith and works in our salvation.
I would posit, first of all, that our central point of reference for this topic should be from the third chapter of St. Paul's letter to the Philippians. He opens this chapter with warnings against those who would have the Jewish Christians follow the observance of the Mosaic Law in order to be in good standing before God. He outlines his own credentials within his pre-Christian, Jewish life, then states the following:
"But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith; that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus" (vv. 7-14).This passage will be referenced in several places in order to clarify the Orthodox position on the role of "faith" and "works" within the works of St. Paul and St. James. Suffice it to say that we believe that both Ss. Paul and James confess that
- faith in Christ is absolutely necessary for our salvation,
- the objective establishment of the reality of our salvation rests solely and squarely in the death, burial and resurrection of Christ,
- the subjective application of that reality to individuals requires effort, within the context of that faith, for as long as God grants the person life, and
- the ultimate state of the believer is not assumed to be one of salvation, as the believer's striving within the grace of God is not yet finished.
We are told to "make every effort to enter into the rest" God has prepared for us (Heb. 4:11), or "lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of [us]," as St. Paul told the Philippians, yet while all this is done with the understanding that the grace of God undergirds, surrounds, and permeates all things at all times, we must, within the context of this grace made available to us apart from anything we might have tried to do to deserve it, beat our bodies and make them our slaves so that we will not become disqualified after beginning our life in Christ (1 Cor. 9:27). Again, St. Paul makes his goal knowing Christ "and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead." He states that, in his quest to share in the sufferings of Christ and thus apply them to himself towards the reward of the future resurrection, he does not consider himself to "have already attained, or...have apprehended" the objective reality that was established, unshakably, by Christ, but he presses on towards the goal of that union with God. We would say, then, as Orthodox, that St. Paul was not so much preaching against works of any kind as being efficacious in helping us journey further into our salvation, but rather against works apart from union with and faith in Christ Jesus. Such works apart from Christ, in his estimation, were the very works outlined in the Old Testament Law, which had been made null and void, useless to save since the coming of grace in the person of Christ.
This idea--that men must work within the context of their faith in order to perfect it--is perfectly consonant, then, with St. James' injunction that "faith without works is dead." In the context outlined above, where Christ laid the groundwork for our salvation in His crucified, buried and risen flesh, and we then "fill up in [our] flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body, which is the church" (Col. 1:24), we see that not only is St. James telling us that by our works we will be justified and seen to be holy in the eyes of those around us (an important part of being a light in this world, cf. Matt. 5:16), but that only such a faith that is active will be salvific for the person who has said faith. Indeed, St. James asks rhetorically if faith, apart from any works, will be enough to save the person who claims the faith (2:14). Obviously, St. James says that no man will be justified by faith alone (v. 24), and that faith is made perfect through the works a man does (v. 22). It is not, therefore, a foregone conclusion to St. James that everyone who professes faith in Christ will automatically perform the works appropriate to such faith. There is no direct link between "those who profess faith in Christ" and "those who actually do what is required of them by God." Many may agree with this at first, but this declaration of St. James would have much to say to those who profess to know with assurance, based on their current profession of faith in Christ, that their eternal destiny is secure. Indeed, our Lord showed through the parable of the two sons of the vine dresser (Matt. 21:28-31) that our initial reaction to something can be misleading, for the end result of our response may be totally contrary to said response. Thus, St. James says, we are only fully justified when we act on what we say we believe--otherwise we only have the theology of demons: assent without deeds. This, both Ss. Paul and James affirm, is why it is absolutely essential to "press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me." Christ has laid the groundwork of our salvation out by taking our flesh upon Himself, dying in that flesh, being buried and rising again in that same flesh. The potential to be saved is something no one can take away from us; God's rest spoken of in Hebrews 4 has been forever established, and the apprehension of our race by Christ's victory spoken of in Philippians 3 is now unshakable. Yet it is not enough for that to happen; we must strive to enter the rest, and press on to apprehend the reality which Christ has already made available (but not necessarily actualized) for us.
Let us rejoice, then, in the sure knowledge that heaven has been made available to us, that our path to return to the House of the Father has been cleared, and the doors have been flung open for us. However, "since a promise remains of entering His rest, let us fear lest any of [us] seem to have come short of it." The reality is there, and only by trusting in the steadfastness of that reality fashioned for us by God will we ever be saved, yet an indispensable part of participating in that salvation is our continual response to the grace that makes it so possible. The response is hard, and we are given grace to help in time of need, so that, somehow, we may attain on the last Day to the resurrection of the righteous dead to life everlasting.
(For a more comprehensive analysis of the Orthodox view of asceticism in salvation--one that incorporates the entire New Testament, see Fr. Georges Florovsky's lengthy but excellent essay, "The Ascetic Ideal and the New Testament: Reflections on the Critique of the Theology of the Reformation")