Salvation by faith alone and not by any sort of works is the orthodoxy of Protestantism. I toed the party line when I was a Protestant, as I could not quite accept Catholicism, and I did not think that the truth would be in isolation. However, I could not really relate to Protestants who spoke strongly on it, as if salvation by both faith and works is the heresy of heresies. How could these people hold such disdain for the faith of virtually all Christians for so many centuries? It is usually accompanied by an extremely presumptuous statement such as, “The problem is, it is just not Biblical,” or, “Well, let’s look at what the Bible says,” as if no one read or cared about the Bible for over 1,000 years! In actuality, the Protestant understanding of this issue does not come from the Bible, but the historical context of the Reformation. They incorrectly assume that the Bible is discussing ideologies which developed in the West after the Great Schism.
The Apostle Paul mentions that Abraham was justified by faith before works of the law such as circumcision. If Abraham was counted righteous by faith without works of the law, then obviously the same can apply to us. We do not have to be circumcised. But, does this mean that no sort of works were part of Abraham’s righteousness? The Apostle James says,
“Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” And he was called the friend of God. You see then that man is justified by works, and not by faith only.” –James 2:21-24.
Some Protestants will respond that the Bible so clearly teaches salvation by faith alone, that using this verse to counter the doctrine of Sola Fide must be taking it out of context. But, if the Bible so clearly teaches the doctrine of faith alone, then why did the great founder of this phrase, Martin Luther, feel the need to both add to and subtract from the Bible- for the very sake of this doctrine? He added the word “alone” after “faith” in his German translation of the Bible, and attempted to remove the Book of James. If you accept the doctrine Luther formulated on this issue, this fact must be seriously considered. Is this the way that God would reintroduce a core doctrine of the Christian faith to the human race after millennium of profound error?
The real reason Protestants hold to the doctrine of faith alone is not because it is in the Bible, but because it best fits their understanding of salvation. The foundation of Protestant understanding of salvation begins with the Catholic Saint Anselm (1033-1109), who taught that Christ’s death paid off an offended honor. This later developed to the Medieval Catholic doctrine of Christ’s death generating merits which can be transferred to our spiritual account. We get access to the treasury of merits through the Pope, who has the keys and can dispense merits at his arbitration. We do not need to worry about the merits running out, because the saints add to the treasury with their surplus of merits. Catholic popes literally taught this. They could dispense merits as a reward for visiting a saint’s shrine, or buying an indulgence, usually prescribing a certain number of years off purgatory.
This crazy theology has nothing to do with the Bible, but it is foundational for the Protestant understanding of salvation by which they understand faith alone. The early Protestants taught that it is only Christ’s merits by which we are saved, and we have full access to this by faith. Sounds better right? They patched up the Catholic understanding of merits, but the problem is this whole understanding of salvation by transfer of merit is wrong to begin with.
To show that this understanding of salvation is unbiblical, consider the parable of the talents. A lord gives each of his servants a talent, and commands them to work with these talents until he returns. One servant produces ten talents with the talent given him and is rewarded with ten cities. One servant produces 5, and is rewarded with 5 cities. The servant who did not work with what was given him, had his talent taken from him. If the fore-mentioned merit system were applied to this parable, then the Lord’s uncountable talents would be transferred to the accounts of his servants regardless of their work. Instead, this parable fits the Orthodox doctrine of synergy- cooperation with God. We receive grace by God (represented by the first talent), and we must work with the grace that God has given us in order to increase it. Note that grace is not merely something forensic and external to us, but the uncreated energies of God operating within us. Even after we become servants of God by faith, our reward hangs on the work we do with the grace given to us by that faith.
The Protestant understanding of salvation developed from merits to double-imputation. Christ’s righteousness is transferred to our court sentence, whereas our condemnation is transferred to Christ’s court sentence. Christ did not just die for us, but died instead of us in a total replacement. This transfer happens when one has faith. In this understanding, our works cannot affect our court sentence, because God just sees Christ’s works. When the Bible talks about Christ’s sacrifice and Him ransoming us, Evangelicals assume it is talking about this doctrine.
Now to show that this understanding of salvation is unbiblical, consider the parable of the fig tree. A man asks the keeper of his vineyard to cut down a fruitless tree. But the keeper intercedes for the tree, asking for time to dig around and fertilize it. If the tree bears fruit after a year, it is saved, and if not, then it will be cut down. An Evangelical understanding would necessitate that the keeper offers fruit on behalf of the tree, and that he offers to be cut down in place of the tree. Instead, it corresponds yet again to the Orthodox understanding of synergy. Christ works with us for our salvation, but we must cooperate with Him. Whether or not we bear fruits directly corresponds to our judgment.
Christ’s sacrifice reconciles us and God, but this cannot be understood as an absolute replacement. He did not take up the cross so that we don’t have to- He took up the cross so that we might take up our cross and follow Him (Mat 16:24). He did not run the race for us, He is the way. We must run the race so as to win the prize (1 Cor 9:24).
Jesus said “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I say to you, will seek to enter and will not be able (Luke 13:24).” In Matthew 17:13-14, He says it this way: “Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.”
“Life” and “destruction” here are not existence and non-existence. They are existence in the life of God and existence in alienation from God. Life in God means that the uncreated energies of God animate a person in co-operation with their will. This is the uncreated light that the Peter, James, and John saw radiating from Christ on Mount Tabor. There is a precursor to this when Moses came down from speaking with God on the Mount Sinai and he had to cover his radiant face because people could not look at it. This was brought to its fullness in Christ, who did not just become human to die for us, but to transfigure humanity. When Stephen was martyred in Acts, it is said that his face was like that of an angel.
The greatest gift of God’s grace is to see this uncreated light of Mount Tabor. No one can see God’s innermost essence, but we can see His energies, which are God Himself and not creation. The light is not created light. So in this way we directly experience God. This is a manifestation of what is to come in Heaven. In every generation in the past 2,000 years, a few people are granted this grace in the Orthodox Church. They have also be seen within this light by other witnesses.
There are many records in the Orthodox Church of this light being seen at the celebration of the Eucharist. Christ said:
“Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”
Christ became transfigured in the flesh and defeated death in the flesh by His resurrection. There is a physical aspect to how Christ saved us, so there must be a physical aspect to how we access that salvation. However if our will is not in co-operation with God, then the Sacraments are for our harm and condemnation instead of salvation. St. Paul says to the Corinthians,
“Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep (1 Cor 27-30).”
At that time the Eucharist was part of a meal (in the Orthodox Church, we still consider it part of the meal after the Liturgy.) The problem with the Church in Corinth is stated by St. Paul here, “Therefor when you come together in one place, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper. For in eating each one takes his own supper ahead of the others; and one is hungry and another is drunk (1 Cor 20-21).” The problem here is a lack of love, as well as a lack of temperance.
This is where asceticism comes in. The Orthodox forbids from the Eucharist its members who are not fasting and expressing love through acts such as almsgiving. This is how one strives to enter the narrow gate of life. This is how one runs the race.
There are people in the Orthodox Church who have produced ten talents. This is because we properly understand salvation, which involves striving and the sacraments. Orthodox people have been granted corresponding grace, as is manifested by the visions our members are granted of the uncreated light of Mount Tabor.
If someone still thinks that the sacraments are merely symbols that are not ontologically united to the realities, this is disproven by the Apostles laying their hands on people to grant them the Holy Spirit. Even if someone has faith and has been baptized, they are not full members of the Church and do not have the Holy Spirit, unless they are given the sacrament of Chrismation by an apostolic minister of the Orthodox Church. The Bible also says to have elders anoint the sick with oil, which is done in the Orthodox Church, but not in Protestant Churches.