Sunday, November 30, 2008

Commentary on Ephesians 2:8-10

by St. John Chrysostom

Or, You Were Not Saved by Your Works, but You Shall Not be Saved Without Them, Either.

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. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:8-10)

Ver. 8.For by grace,” says he [St. Paul], “have ye been saved.” In order then that the greatness of the benefits bestowed may not raise you too high, observe how he brings you down: “by grace ye have been saved,” says he,

Through faith;” Then, that, on the other hand, our free-will be not impaired, he adds also our part in the work, and yet again cancels it, and adds, “And that not of ourselves.”

...Because had He not come, had He not called us, how had we been able to believe? for “how,” says he, “shall they believe, unless they hear?” (Rom. x. 14.) So that the work of faith itself is not our own. “It is the gift,” said he, “of God,” it is “not of works.”

Was faith then, you will say, enough to save us? No; but God, says he, has required this, lest He should save us, barren and without work at all. His expression is, that faith saves, but it is because God so wills, that faith saves. Since, how, tell me, doth faith save, without works? This itself is the gift of God.

Ver. 9.That no man should glory.”
That he may excite in us proper feeling concerning this gift of grace. “What then?” says a man, “Has He Himself hindered our being justified by works?” By no means. But no one, he says, is justified by works, in order that the grace and loving-kindness of God may be shown. He did not reject us as having works; but as abandoned of works He has saved us by grace; so that no man henceforth may have anything of which to boast. And then, lest when you hear that the whole work is accomplished not of works but by faith, you should become idle, observe how he continues,

Ver. 10.For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God beforehand prepared that we should walk in them.”

Observe the words he uses. He here alludes to the regeneration, which is in reality a second creation. We have been brought from non-existence into being. As to what we were before, that is, the old man, we are dead. What we are now become, we were not before. Truly then is this work a creation, yea, and more noble than the first; for from that one, we have our being; but from this last, we have, over and above, our well being.

For good works, which God beforehand prepared that we should walk in them.
Not merely that we should begin, but that we should walk in them, for we need a virtue which shall last throughout, and be extended on to our dying day. If we had to travel a road leading to a royal city, and then when we had passed over the greater part of it, were to flag and sit down near the very close, it were of no use to us. This is the hope of our calling; for “for good works” he says. Otherwise it would profit us nothing.

Moral. Thus here he [St. Paul] rejoices not that we should work one work, but all; for, as we have five senses, and ought to make use of all in their proper season, so ought we also the several virtues. Now were a man to be temperate and yet unmerciful, or were he to be merciful and yet grasping, or were he to abstain indeed from other people’s goods, and yet not bestow his own, it would be all in vain. For a single virtue alone is not enough to present us with boldness before the judgment-seat of Christ; no, we require it to be great, and various, and universal, and entire.

Hear what Christ says to the disciples, “Go ye and make disciples of all the nations,—teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I commanded you.” (Matt. xxviii. 19.) And again, “Whosoever shall break one of these least commandments, shall be called least in the kingdom of Heaven,” (Matt. v. 19.) that is, in the resurrection; nay, he shall not enter into the kingdom; for He is in the habit of calling the time also of the resurrection, the kingdom. “If he break one,” says He, “he shall be called least,” so that we have need of all. And observe how it is not possible to enter without works of mercy; but if even this alone be wanting, we shall depart into the fire. For, says He, “Depart, ye cursed, into the eternal fire, which is prepared for the Devil and his angels.” Why and wherefore? “For I was hungry, and ye gave me no meat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink.” (Matt. xxv. 42.) Notice, how without any other charge laid against them, for this one alone they perished. And for this reason alone too were the virgins also excluded from the bride-chamber, though sobriety surely they did possess. As the Apostle says, “and the sanctification, without which no man shall see the Lord.” (Heb. xii. 14.) Consider then, that without sobriety, it is impossible to see the Lord; yet it does not necessarily follow that with sobriety it is possible to see Him, because often-times something else stands in the way. Again, if we do all things ever so rightly, and yet do our neighbor no service, neither in that case shall we enter into the kingdom. Whence is this evident? From the parable of the servants entrusted with the talents. For, in that instance, the man’s virtue was in every point unimpaired, and there had been nothing lacking, but forasmuch as he was slothful in his business, he was rightly cast out. Nay, it is possible, even by railing only, to fall into Hell. “For whosoever” says Christ, “shall say to his brother, Thou fool, shall be in danger of the hell of fire.” (Matt. v. 22.) And if a man be ever so right in all things, and yet be injurious, he shall not enter.

And let no one impute cruelty to God, in that he excludes those who fail in this matter, from the kingdom of Heaven. For even with men, if any one does any thing whatsoever contrary to the law, he is banished from the king’s presence. And if he transgresses so much as one of the established laws, if he lays a false accusation against another, he forfeits his office. And if he commits adultery, and is detected, he is disgraced, and even though he have done ten thousand right acts, he is undone; and if he commits murder, and is convicted, this again is enough to destroy him. Now if the laws of men are so carefully guarded, how much more should those of God be.

“But He is good,” a man says. How long are we to be uttering this foolish talk? foolish, I say, not because He is not good, but in that we keep thinking that His goodness will be available to us for these purposes, though I have again and again used ten thousand arguments on this subject. Listen to the Scripture, which says, “Say not, His mercy is great, He will be pacified for the multitude of my sins.” (Ecclus. v. 6.) He does not forbid us to say, “His mercy is great.” This is not what He enjoins; rather he would have us constantly say it, and with this object Paul raises all sorts of arguments, but his object is what follows. Do not, he means, admire the loving-kindness of God with this view, with a view to sinning, and saying, “His mercy will be pacified for the multitude of my sins.” For it is with this object that I too discourse so much concerning His goodness, not that we may presume upon it, and do any thing we choose, because in that way this goodness will be to the prejudice of our salvation; but that we may not despair in our sins, but may repent. For “the goodness of God leads you to repentance,” (Rom. ii. 4.) not to greater wickedness. And if you become depraved, because of His goodness, you are rather belying Him before men. I see many persons thus impugning the long-suffering of God; so that if you use it not aright, you shall pay the penalty. Is God a God of loving-kindness? Yes, but He is also a righteous Judge. Is He one who makes allowance for sins? True, yet He renders to every man according to his works. Does He pass by iniquity and blot out transgressions? True, yet He makes inquisition also. How then is it, that these things are not contradictions? Contradictions they are not, if we distinguish them by their times. He does away iniquity here, both by the laver of Baptism, and by penitence. There [at Judgment], He makes inquisition of what we have done by fire and torment.

“If then,” some man may say, “I am cast out, and forfeit the kingdom, whether I have wrought ten thousand evil deeds or only one, why may I not do all sorts of evil deeds?” This is the argument of an ungrateful servant; still nevertheless, we will proceed to solve even this. Never do that which is evil in order to do yourself good; for we shall, all alike fall short of the kingdom, yet in Hell we shall not all undergo the same punishment, but one a severer, another a milder one. For now, if you and another have “despised God’s goodness,” (Rom. ii. 4.) the one in many instances, and the other in a few, you will both alike forfeit the kingdom. But if you have not alike despised Him, but the one in a greater, the other in a less degree, in Hell you shall feel the difference.

Now then, why, it may be said, does He threaten them who have not done works of mercy, that they shall depart into the fire, and not simply into the fire, but into that which is “prepared for the devil and his angels?” (Matt. xxv. 41.) Why and wherefore is this? Because nothing so provokes God to wrath. He puts this before all terrible things; for if it is our duty to love our enemies, of what punishment shall not he be worthy, who turns away even from them that love him, and is in this respect worse than the heathen? So that in this case the greatness of the sin will make such a one go away with the devil. Woe to him, it is said, who does not alms; and if this was the case under the Old Covenant, much more is it under the New. If, where the getting of wealth was allowed, and the enjoyment of it, and the care of it, there was such provision made for the succoring the poor, how much more in that Dispensation, where we are commanded to surrender all we have? For what did not they of old do? They gave tithes, and tithes again upon tithes for orphans, widows, and strangers; whereas some one was saying to me in astonishment at another, “Why, so-and-so gives tithes.” What a load of disgrace does this expression imply, since what was not a matter of wonder with the Jews has come to be so in the case of the Christians? If there was danger then in omitting tithes, think how great it must be now.

Again, drunkenness shall not inherit the kingdom. Yet what is the language of most people? “Well, if both I and he are in the same situation, that is no little comfort.” What then? First of all, you and he shall not reap the same punishment; but were it otherwise, neither is that any comfort. Fellowship in sufferings has comfort in it, when the miseries have any proportion in them; but when they exceed all proportion, and carry us beyond ourselves, no longer do they allow of our receiving any comfort at all. For tell the man that is being tortured, and has entered into the flames, that so-and-so is undergoing the same, still he will not feel the comfort. Did not all the Israelites perish together? What manner of comfort did that afford them? Rather, did not this very thing distress them? And this was why they kept saying, We are lost, we are perished, we are wasted away. What kind of comfort then is there here? In vain do we comfort ourselves with such hopes as these. There is but one only comfort, to avoid falling into that unquenchable fire; but it is not possible for one who has fallen into it to find comfort, where there is the gnashing of teeth, where there is the weeping, where is the worm that does not die, and the fire that is not quenched. For shall you conceive any comfort at all, tell me, when you are in so great tribulation and distress? Will you then be any longer yourself? Let us not, I pray and entreat you, let us not vainly deceive ourselves and comfort ourselves with arguments like these; no, let us practise those virtues, which shall avail to save us. The object before us is to sit together with Christ, and are you trifling about such matters as these? Why, were there no other sin at all, how great punishment ought we not to suffer for these very speeches themselves, because we are so insensate, so wretched, and so indolent, as, even with so vast a privilege before us, to talk thus? Oh! how much shall you have to lament, when you shall then consider them that have done good! When thou shall behold slaves and base-born who have labored but a little here, there made partakers of the royal throne, will not these things be worse to you than torment? For if even now, when you see anyone in high reputation, though you are suffering no evil, you [jealously] regard this as worse than any punishment, and by this alone are consumed, and bemoan yourself, and weep, and judge it to be as bad as ten thousand deaths; what shall you suffer then? Why, even were there no hell at all, the very thought of the kingdom, would it not be enough to destroy and consume you? And that such will be the case, we have enough in our own experience of things to teach us. Let us not then vainly flatter our own souls with speeches like these; no, let us take heed, let us have a regard for our own salvation, let us make virtue our care, let us rouse ourselves to the practice of good works, that we may be counted worthy to attain to this exceeding glory, in Jesus Christ our Lord with whom to the Father, together with the Holy Spirit be glory, might, honor, now and ever, and for ages of ages.