Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost / Fifth Sunday of Luke, November 2, 2014
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
Many people who are introduced to the Orthodox Church for the first time, especially if they come from a Protestant background, often have a few matters that strike them as either incomprehensible or outright wrong. For many, the love and veneration we give the Virgin Mary can make them stumble. Others just can’t understand why we fill our churches with icons. Still others rankle at the idea that we should be accountable to a father-confessor.
When I was introduced to Orthodoxy, none of those things was a problem for me. My own special issue was much more doctrinaire, and it’s an issue that has its origins in the 16th century Protestant Reformation in Western Europe. The question is what exactly the relationship is between faith and good works.
When Martin Luther began in Germany what would become a great rebellion against the authority of the Roman Catholic Church, fracturing Europe into numerous religious sects and movements, one of the things that bugged him the most about Rome’s practices was the shape of its piety. Although Rome never officially taught this, the general belief was that doing good works or making monetary donations would buy salvation in the next life or at least time out of Purgatory, that intermediate place of suffering and purgation that Rome teaches is necessary before the faithful can get into Heaven.
As a Protestant in my younger days, I was raised with this idea about Roman Catholics, that they believe you can earn your way into Heaven. (They don’t believe that, by the way.) When I encountered Orthodoxy, and I saw all the rituals, the piety, the monasticism, the pilgrimages, the ornamentation in the churches, and all the many things Orthodox Christians do as part of their practice, I immediately started thinking about faith and works again.
There’s just so much to do in our church. Why do we do it all? Do we think that, if we come to church enough, serve enough years on the parish council, give enough money, work at enough fundraisers, take enough classes, teach enough classes, read enough books, sing enough hymns, believe hard enough, fast enough, say enough Jesus Prayers, go on enough pilgrimages, or buy enough religious articles, somehow, God will count up all our religious points at the end of life and be obligated to let us into Heaven?
Our patron, the Apostle Paul, writes to the Christians of Galatia something that bears directly on this very question. In the second chapter of this epistle, Paul writes, “knowing that a person is not justified by the works of the Law, but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by the works of the Law: for by the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified.” He spells it out clearly: our justification in Christ is by faith, not by the “works of the Law.”
Now, we have to unpack that a little to understand what that means. First, what is Paul talking about when he says “the works of the Law”? He is referring to the Law of Moses, the Jewish Law which was kept by good Jews and included everything from morality to preparing food according to kosher restrictions to ritual washings to rid oneself of ritual impurity.
But when Martin Luther read this section in Galatians, he misread it. He took “the works of the Law” as referring to every good work, not only to the Law of Moses. So he makes faith almost opposed to good works. But that is not what Paul is saying. He is saying that justification comes by faith, not by the Jewish Law.
So we have to ask what “justification” is. Some have taken this word justification to mean essentially “the thing that gets you into Heaven.” If you are “justified,” then you are “saved.” You’ve got your eternal ticket to eternal bliss. But that’s not what justification actually is.
The word used in Greek for “justification” is essentially the same word used for “righteousness.” So if you are “justified,” then you are righteous. If God declares you justified, then you are being declared righteous. And God wouldn’t declare you to be something that you actually aren’t. His declarations are about reality, not legal fictions.
And how does that justification or righteousness come? By faith. And what is faith? It is not only to believe. It cannot be that. Righteousness doesn’t reduce only to what you think is true, even if you’re really passionate about believing it. We must remember that even demons know the truth. They probably know it better than most of us.
Faith is an active, committed holding fast to the object of that faith. For Christians, it is holding fast to Christ. So someone who truly is faithful to Christ is righteous. The point Paul is making is that faithfulness to Christ is not the same thing as faithfulness to the Law of Moses. You can fulfill all the works of that Law yet not be faithful to Christ. It’s only faithfulness to Christ that makes you righteous.
Now if we understand those words faithfulness and righteousness well, then we can see that there is no amount of merely being dutiful that could actually “count” for taking us to eternity with God. It is not that Jews in Paul’s time thought that keeping the Law of Moses got them into Heaven by itself, as though they were earning salvation. It is that they thought that the Law of Moses was the path of righteousness, and that the righteous were justified before God and therefore worthy of Heaven.
So even Jews didn’t believe they earned their way into Heaven. Nowhere do you see in the Jewish Scriptures the idea that doing enough Jewish duties gets you into Heaven. They believed that they could be righteous by following the Law of Moses. Paul is saying that it’s not the Law of Moses that makes you righteous. It’s faithfulness to Christ that does that. He isn’t positing a choice between doing a bunch of religious duties on one hand or believing in Jesus on the other. No, he’s saying that there are two different ways to righteousness, and that one of them is the real way and the other is a dead end and doesn’t actually get you there.
Both ways have both beliefs and actions attached to them. It’s not that one way is about belief and the other about action. It’s that the beliefs and the actions are different between the ways. You have to follow the right way, which includes both belief and action. That is what faith actually entails. It’s not just believing. It’s also acting. You have to believe the right way and also act the right way.
Luther was wrong that the story was “faith versus works.” No, it’s “faith and works” on both sides of the question. The real difference is which faith and works you’re going to follow.
This is why he later says “But if, while we sought to be justified in Christ, we ourselves also were found sinners, is Christ then a minister of sin? God forbid! For if I build up again those things which I destroyed, I prove myself a transgressor. For I through the law died to the law, that I might live to God.” In other words, you can’t pursue righteousness and faithfulness in Christ if what you’re doing is still sinful. You can’t “build up again those things which [you] destroyed”—that is, your sins—and say that that’s the way of Christ. You only prove yourself a transgressor. The way of Christ is not a transgressive way where what you do doesn’t matter so long as you believe the right things. Paul says, yes, “I died to the Law,” but it’s so that he “might live to God.” In other words, he’s not under the Law of Moses any more, but it’s not because he doesn’t care about what he does—it’s because what he does is now about living for God, and that has positive content. It’s a life—a way! It’s about faithfulness and righteousness.
Paul completes this passage with a description of what this looks like: “I have been crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave Himself up for me.”
Paul’s been crucified. He’s dead to the world, dead to the Law of Moses. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t do anything, that he now has a life in which good works are irrelevant. No, he is risen with Christ, Who lives in him. Indeed, he says that the life he now lives is not actually his own living but the life of Christ. It is the righteousness and good works and faith of Christ that are now active within him.
So what about all these things that we do in Orthodoxy? Does following the way of Christ rather than the Law of Moses mean that we’re still earning our way to Heaven but only in a different manner? No, it doesn’t mean that. We didn’t replace the Law of Moses with another set of laws.
But the Law of Moses was never about earning your way to Heaven, either. All the good things that Jews did and all the evil Jews refrained from wasn’t about getting enough points to get them into Heaven. It was about training themselves for righteousness. What Paul is saying is that that training doesn’t actually make you righteous. The Law of Moses was good, to be sure, but its point all along was to lead us to crucifixion with Christ so that we could die with Christ and then so we could live in Christ. It was just the roadmap. It wasn’t the destination.
The justification associated with the Law of Moses wasn’t delivered by that Law. Rather, the Law delivered people to Christ, Who is the One Who gives justification, Who makes men righteous.
So we are now alive to Christ. And if we want to remain that way, both now and into eternity, we have to be faithful. We have to be righteous. Our faithfulness and righteousness aren’t what make us worthy of the Kingdom of Heaven. Rather, Christ changes us through those acts to make us like Him. And if we are like Him, then we quite naturally fit into the Kingdom of Heaven.
So let us “live by the faith of the Son of God,” Who loved us and gave Himself up for us. That means faith and action—faithfulness that leads to righteousness.
The Kingdom of Heaven isn’t a place strangers can purchase tickets into by doing good works. It’s a place where Christ-transformed, faithful people who are characterized by good works are welcomed home because they belong there already.
To God therefore be all glory, honor and worship, to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.