I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God (Romans 12:1-2).
St. Paul calls the Christians in Rome (as he would Christians everywhere) to the essential Christian life – “be transformed.” For many modern Christians, this admonition of the great Apostle is understood as a moral transformation. The mind leaves behind the immoral thoughts of a sinful culture, and switches its allegiance to the moral world of Christianity.
As an interpretation of the Scriptures, such a reading is extremely “thin.” The changing of our allegiance to a new set of ideals renders the verse as a mere exhortation to self-improvement. Such moralistic treatments of the Scriptures remove the depth and mystery to which the great Apostle refers. To be transformed is not the same thing as adopting a new set of moral standards: it describes a deep transformation in which we become somehow different than we are at present – at the deepest level of our existence.
If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17).
This transformation is both a gift of the Holy Spirit and our steady cooperation with that gift. Throughout the centuries there have various efforts to reduce Christianity to nothing more than a moral system. Thomas Jefferson, one of the early American presidents, produced an edited version of the Bible in which he eliminated miracles and retained only the so-called “moral” or “ethical” teachings. Such efforts have largely grown from a mistaken understanding of the Christian faith and a rejection of the most fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith.
Today, many Christians acknowledge the divinity of Christ and believe that He died for their sins – but having accepted this much they then consider the rest of their Christian life to consist of efforts to live correctly. No one should discourage someone from trying to do good – but efforts to live a moral life which are not efforts united to the transforming work of Christ within us are misguided, and, in some cases, positively harmful.
We begin our life in Christ by being united with Him in Holy Baptism. Having begun our life through union with Christ, we should continue our life through union with Christ.
Christ within you, the hope of glory (Col. 1:27).
Acquire the Spirit of peace and a thousand souls around you will be saved – St. Seraphim of Sarov
It is possible for someone to be “moral” or to live “ethically” without wonder, without joy. But it is not possible to live a life united to Christ without wonder and joy. St. Gregory of Nyssa, writing in the 4th century, said that “Man is mud, whom God has commanded to become god.” The moral life, lived apart from union with Christ, will never rise to the level of God’s true commandment. Only the transforming grace of God can do such a work in us.
God is looking for something more than a few good men.
What a wonderful reminder of the true life in Christ. I just read an article by a young man bemoaning what he called hipster churches and their gimmicks, which are causing youth to leave in droves. Some are finding the True Church, or I should say, the Fullest Church, but many are departing from Christianity all together under the guise of being “spiritual but not religious.”
One of the great tragedies of our day is the fact that this is a revolving door. What I mean is that while many Protestants are finding the fullness of faith in Christ through the Orthodox Church, many Orthodox Youth are leaving for these same hipster churches. I think it might be that the moralistic view of “be ye transformed” has invaded our Holy Tradition, and many nominal believers are ill equipped to combat the glitz and glamor of modern pseudo-churches.
I was trying to explain to my oldest daughter the difference between being able to learn something about God, even when we have fun and true worship and prayer, which aught to be done soberly. Unfortunately her mom chooses not to follow me in my catechumanate, and remains protestant. Not only that, but the entirety of the material world around her is geared “for her good pleasure” so to speak. My daughters do come with me quite often to Orthodox Services and seem to take it in with joy. But what a lure the world is.
If I can learn this truth myself, and live it out before my girls, with much prayer, tears and trembling, they can be transformed as well.
Pray for this sinner and my family.
And thanks again for sharing your reflections. They have been a great part of my path toward the Church in Christ.
Thank you for this post, Fr. Stephen! Glory to God for All Things!
Nice blog, great posts/articles.
I want to present you an website, of a Romanian Orthodox Priest.
On the right side of the page you will find the translate module.
The temptation to moralism is something that comes to some of us every day in different forms. Even my catechumenate has presented stumbling blocks, as I teach myself that Orthodoxy is *good*–therefore Protestantism and any related practices must be *bad*. The truth is not so.
I find it most helpful to remember always that there is no such thing as Protestantism (or indeed Catholicism). These are purely post modern inventions as are the conundrums and contentions that develop around them.
There is the Glorious image of God. And then there are people.
It really is that simple. This is the heart of Holy Orthodoxy — true existence made visible in the person of God. Borderless. Beyond language, culture, race, doctrine and the holy canons.
I have found, in my own experience that it is through the very young (or oddly enough the obvious sinner) that the Lord speaks most clearly and sometimes very loudly.
Lord have mercy!
I understand that God is indeed transcendant. However, it’s not that canons and doctrine are mere human inventions. They are a verbal icon of Christ (in Orthodox understanding) so that I am hesitant to embrace your statement without some nuance.
Fr. Stephen you say:
“To be transformed is not the same thing as adopting a new set of moral standards: it describes a deep transformation in which we become somehow different than we are at present – at the deepest level of our existence.”
To me this is the key to your post. That transformation involves a life of repentence and forgiveness does it not? Does not that life mean that we confront not only the moral precepts and consequences of our lives but the ravenous effects of our own sin (whether immoral or not) on ourselves and others?
I have known a light, in which,
Bad seems “final”
I am the source of it’s seeming.
I borrowed it a name,
And brought it here.
And yet, in this light,
Good seems eternal.
I’ll borrow it a name,
“Possom” “Sop” or “Taters”….
And there, beside my door,
Desiring me to stumble
On the threshold of my seeming.
Sits One, nameless,
Crouching so small
Seeming neither difficult
To name, nor overcome
This is true. While God remains utterly transcendent, He has also filled all things (Eph. 4:9).
“No one should try to discourage someone from trying to do good – but efforts to live a moral life which are not efforts united to the transforming work of Christ within us are misguided, and, in some cases, positively harmful.”
I understand this concept well because I lived within a Christian community that focused strongly on good and acceptable moral behavior. But I think the answer to avoiding such thinking and behavior is in your statement above. Wouldn’t you agree that the key to living the Orthodox Christian faith rightly is that all our “efforts,” that is, all our actions, all our thoughts, really all that we do must proceed from our love for Christ? And further, we can only experience this kind of love if we are united to Christ and transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Otherwise, we will live as “dutiful” Christians, going through the motions of fasting, praying, tithing, attending Divine Liturgy, etc. with no sense of joy and without the life of Christ abiding within us.
So…this leads me to a question. How does a priest deal with a parish that is “nominal?” You know, one that just goes through the motions. What can he do, or say, or fill-in-the-blank to inspire his parish toward genuine, authentic, Christian living that will transform them and thus be seen in the brethren loving one another in deed and in truth?
As it says in Holy Scripture, “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works.”
St. Paul writes: “If I speak in the [languages] of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood. So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. ” – I Corinthians 13 (RSV)
“God is love and he who abides in love abides in God and God abides in him.” – I John 4:16b
If our struggles are to bear fruit in anything but pharaisaic moralism, they must be motivated by love: love for God and love for God’s creation. If we are not yet there, they must be motivated by the desire for that love.
Pray for me, a sinner.
BTW, I would like to mention that I’ve known Christians who were either raised or attended legalistic/moralist churches and then went to the other extreme. The other extreme being “Once saved always saved.” Having been so burnt off by works orientation Christianity, when they left those legalist churches they would say how they finally disciovered the grace of God. And in so doing, they realized they didn’t have to “do” anything to be saved. It was ALL a matter of God’s grace.
The problem with this kind of thinking is that it lends itself to self-deception. If one is “saved” and on their way to Heaven, and nothing that they do or don’t do will effect that….then how one lives has no connection to the necessity of being transformed and finally, being saved.
Amen to that Fr. Greg!
Very well said, Father. I particularly liked the quote from St. Gregory Nyssa. The point you make — which is THE point to Christianity (that without Christ the good works avail not) — seems to me often to come and go in my life. I know it, then lose it, then find it again. It’s as if it is such a holy understanding, that I cannot make it mine but have to rediscover it daily — truly our daily bread. Thanks again. I have added your blog to my list.
Very nice post Father.
I have been having similar thoughts lately. I came out of a non-denominational/Southern Baptist tradition before being received in the Orthodox Church. I was recently reflecting on “being transformed” or becoming Christ-like within the Protestant tradition. I remembered that I was often encouraged to these high callings, but I realized, in my reflections, that to be transformed or become Christ-like I had to do these moral things (though they were very beautiful and holy things). I also realized without the witness of Holy Tradition, Protestants have these high ideals with no way to accomplish them. There is no ascesis, no Saints to look to, no liturgical services to teach us how to pray, etc. It is as if Protestants are on one side of a canyon and becoming Christ-like is on the other, but no bridge between the two cliffs.
Having said that, I also know many still-Protestant friends and relatives who shame me in Christian living.
I have so often forgotten this passage, to my peril. It was one of the most frequent quotes from the pulpit from my early days in the Episcopal Church.
Thanks for reminding me.
Rdr. James Morgan
@jeremy I agree that a lot of protestant churches lack any sort of tradition and liturgy. But not all. I go to a very liturgical southern baptist church. We may not have saints in the proper form but do look to fellow believers in the past. Such as Calvin, Luther, etc… We are very liturgical yet very contextualized.
Darlene, in your question to Fr. Stephen about how he ministers to nominal believers in his parish, I thought of the following quotes from Elder Porphyrios (Greek Elder who reposed in 1991). With his indulgence I’ll pass them along to the readers here:
“When our brother errs we must bear his temptation. True love inspires us to make sacrifices for the good of our neighbor. Without sacrifice and with our condemnation, we cause our brother who fell to fall even farther; while, with the silent sacrifice of our love and prayer for him, we awaken his conscience, which awakens and condemns him, and so he repents and is corrected.”
“Our love in Christ must reach all places, even to the hippies in Malta (Crete). I very much wanted to go there, not to preach to them or to condemn them, but to live with them, without sin of course, and leave the love of Christ to speak for itself, which transfigures life.”
“When you pray for someone who is suffering from sinful passions under the influence of the devil, don’t tell the person that you’re praying for him. Otherwise the devil will learn about it and will influence his soul to rise up against you and so your prayer will have no effect. Pray for the person secretly and your prayer will be effectual.”
“Don’t pressure your children. In your prayers say the things that you want to tell them. Children don’t listen through their ears but only when divine grace comes to enlighten them do they listen to the things we want to to tell them. When you want to say something to your children, tell it to the Panagia and she will bring it to pass. This prayer of yours will be like a spiritual caress which will embrace your children and will grab their attention. Sometimes we try to caress them and they react against it, but they never react against the spiritual caress.”
As I think about the things that have influenced me most in my life towards the love of Christ, these statements of the Elder really ring true to me. I believe Fr. Stephen may have posted the last quote with one of his past posts. All quotes are taken from the book, Precious Vessels of the Holy Spirit.
There have also been a number of posts at the following site in the past few weeks that I have also found very helpful (and pertinent to this subject):
Father, bless! Joyous Feast to you!
Thank you so much, Karen. As I told my husband this afternoon, as an Orthodox Christian, I am learning how arrogant and prideful I have been and the need for humility. The message that comes through in this elder’s words is humility…and mercy. “Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.”
Thanks again…such beautiful admonitions are sweet music to my ears and heart!
What a wonderful, insightful, inspiring post!
Darlene, you’re welcome! I find these nuggets from the Fathers and Elders of the Church to be such nourishment to my soul. I reread them often, and I’m glad to share them and know that others benefit as well.
Does anyone know how to get email updates when Fr Stephen makes a post?
Nevermind, I was able to by posting the first comment.
“I also realized without the witness of Holy Tradition, Protestants have these high ideals with no way to accomplish them.”
I am searching for the word that characterizes these types of sentiments…broad brush I suppose works.
“The moral life, lived apart from union with Christ, will never rise to the level of God’s true commandment. Only the transforming grace of God can do such a work in us.”
Luke 10:27 “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself”
I find many non-Orthodox living this transformed life in communion and not some legalistic/moralist existence. I would venture to say that they are accomplishing this by the work of the Holy Spirit. Not sure what their missing when led by the Holy Spirit.