One of the things that divides Christianity in the West into Roman Catholic and Protestant branches is the disagreement about what it takes to make it into heaven. The Catholics insist that both faith and works are necessary. It is not enough just to believe in God, but you have to also do good deeds to prove the sincerity of that faith. Here they often cite the Letter of St James in the Bible, a letter that Protestant pioneer Martin Luther disparaged as being nothing more than a “letter of straw”. What is more, say the Catholics, sacraments are necessary. We must be baptised and confirmed, absolved of our sins in Confession and united with Christ in the Eucharist. Again, there is no shortage of Biblical references for this.
In reply, the Protestants accuse the Catholics of being too narrow, of substituting the inventions of men for the commands of God, and of course they too have plenty of Bible verses to back up their position. “Believe and you will be saved”, they say, and that is all there is to the matter. If you only believe in your heart that Jesus Christ is Lord, and proclaim it with your lips, you have won your place in heaven already, and, many of them add, can never again lose it, no matter what. Sola fidei (faith alone!) is the Protestant catchcry. It is an approach that has simplicity to recommend it, and makes the path to heaven seem so much easier than all that stuff Catholics insist you have to do all your life.
So where do the Orthodox stand in this debate? We believe that faith is necessary, like the other Christians. In fact, the very title of our Tradition, “Orthodox”, comes from two Greek words that mean roughly, ‘the right faith’. To worship the God of Truth, we must worship in spirit and truth. We should seek to know and believe things that are true about God, and reject things that are false. And of course, that includes knowing that Christ is our loving God and Saviour (“personal faith” – see the last post) who through unimaginable self-sacrifice humbled Himself to take human flesh and save us from the corruption of sin and death. So far we agree with our Protestant (and Catholic for that matter) friends.
But what about the importance of works, of doing good things and of the sacraments? Here we find the Orthodox siding with the Catholics against the Protestants. This is one of those Apostolic Church / Non-Apostolic Church divides. I must confess that I sometimes wonder if the Protestants are not in a sense saying the same thing as the Apostolic Churches, but in a different way. A Protestant will admit, if pushed, that sincere faith in Christ must surely lead to good works. Well the Apostolic Churches are simply pointing out that unless those good works are carried out, there is every chance that the faith is not sincere after all. The deeds are necessary for salvation because they are the sign that the faith is real. We do not (contrary to Protestant criticisms) think that we will, by the goodness of our works, ‘earn’ a place in heaven. We know quite well that nothing but the grace of God can save us, and that we have not in us anything close to what it takes to attain our salvation by our own efforts apart from God. If it were possible for us to earn our own salvation then Christ need never have come to us.
But of course, we also do not believe that God can just save us even against our will, so to speak. Yes, there are actually Protestants who believe that. Calvinists traditionally believe in a doctrine of predestination or irresistible grace, that God has chosen who will go to heaven, and nothing we can do can change that. If you’re in, you’re in and if you’re out, you’re out – it’s God’s call and you have no say in the matter. Instead, in Orthodoxy we have the beautiful doctrine of synergy. When two muscles act together to move a single limb in graceful motion, this is called synergy, literally ‘working together’. We believe that salvation is attained through a process of synergy between God’s grace and human free choice. God offers salvation to all, but we cannot benefit from it unless we freely choose to accept it and work towards it. Both parties are necessary, neither alone is sufficient.
So our good works do not earn us heaven, they are the sign that God dwells within us and is working with us to make us heavenly. And thus also we consider that the sacraments will be embraced by those who have sincerely believed in Christ who commanded them. We take Christ’s words seriously when He commands us to practice the four essential sacraments of baptism, chrismation, communion and repentance (we will look at this in more detail in a later post). In the sacraments we find one of the clearest expressions of this synergy between divine grace and human acceptance.
And yet, all that we have said is still not the heart of the matter. In a way, the whole ‘faith versus works’ debate is missing the real point. When you read the classical works of theology and spirituality of the Orthodox Tradition, you find there is a very strong underlying message, a message to be fair, that I also find in the better quality Catholic and Protestant writings. That message is this: behind or under both the faith and the works is the being. It is not so much what you believe or do that is of first importance, but who you are, or more accurately, who you choose to be. Remember the good fruit coming from the good tree? Well in Orthodox spirituality, our chief goal is to strive to be a good tree. From that tree will naturally grow the right faith and good works of all kinds.
What I am not saying is that being the image of God then gives you faith and good works. The relationship between the three things: believing; doing and being, is a complex one. Each feeds the other so to speak. Believing in the Good God makes you see yourself differently and encourages you to behave in good ways. Behaving in good ways on a regular basis gradually changes who you are, and reinforces your faith in the Good God. And of course, being the image of God leads you to naturally love and believe in Him, and to act as He would act. So all three feed each other, as it were. The particularly Orthodox emphasis I am trying to describe here, though, is to place the ultimate importance on the being. You can believe without doing or being. You can do without believing or being. But you cannot be in any meaningful sense without believing and doing.
It is possible to have the right faith and do good works for the wrong reasons. Jesus met people like that: the scribes and the Pharisees and the lawyers, who sat in Moses’ seat (right faith) and adhered to the Judaic law scrupulously (good works), but all to no avail, for they did it for selfish reasons. They did all that good from a bad heart. For the mature Orthodox Christian, the goal of life is not to ‘get into heaven’. It is not to ‘please God’ or to be ‘accepted by God’. It is to be restored to the pure image of God in which we were first created. To be once again that perfect image of God is to become truth and love and goodness and light. Those things are their own reward. The person who becomes that image doesn’t have to think about whether or not to believe in Christ, for she recognises immediately that Christ is the epitome, the source of all those things she has loved and become. When you are that image you do not have to think about doing good deeds or submitting yourself to the sacraments, for they come naturally to you, they grow as naturally out of your heart as apples from an apple tree.
The benefit of thinking of things in this way is that it puts the emphasis on authenticity and keeps it there. If you are worrying about whether you believe or not or about whether you have done enough good, you are worrying about things that are outside yourself, things you can do just for show, or out of fear, or out of habit. But if you are thinking about the kind of person you are deep inside, there can be no hypocrisy here. The goal of the Orthodox Christian is to be transformed into the perfect image of the God who is Love. From that, the rest just follows. And as we shall see in the next post, one of those things that just follows naturally is Heaven.