Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Pure Gift

Non-Orthodox people who theologize usually only have two ideas in mind of how good works could relate to salvation. One is what they were taught by Roman Catholicism: that good works cause or result in salvation. Knowing this to be wrong, Protestants turn this teaching on its head and say no, it’s salvation that causes good works and good works are the manifestation of it.

(Herein is a common Protestant error, assuming that Catholic teaching can be corrected by inverting or reversing it, not realizing that alough the conclusions are opposites, there is a faulty premise common to both.  If the pope says, "Go this way along the road," you can't correct him by saying, "No, go the other way along the road" if what's really needed is to be on a different road.)

So along come the Orthodox and they don't follow that road in either direction.  They say good works are indeed necessary for salvation and are not a mere demonstration of it; but on the other hand, good works do not earn or merit salvation, either – and the heterodox are left scratching their heads. What on earth could that mean?

It means salvation does not work as a merit system.  We don't go down that road, or up it, either.  Salvation is the absolutely free gift of God, which neither can nor needs to be merited, period. Salvation does not have to be merited by anyone whomsoever because God is already willing, able, and prepared to give it to anybody. It cannot be earned, by anyone who ever lived, because Love is not extorted or cajoled or evoked from God, or it isn't true love. Salvation cannot literally be purchased, as by suffering or dying, even if the One who suffers and dies is Jesus Christ, because salvation was never for sale.  It is pure gift from the magnanimous heart of God. To suppose somebody Somebody must do something to get God to save us is to insult His tender kindness and limitless generosity.

I’m reminded of once when my daughter was very young and we were making Valentines for her to give to each child in her class.

“But I don’t want to give one to so-and-so!” she protested. “It will mean I think he’s a nice boy and he isn’t!”

So I explained that what the Valentine would really show was not that he was a nice boy, but that she was a nice girl, giving a card to everyone, so nobody’s feelings would be hurt, no matter whether they were nice children or not. She was a nice girl; that was the point.

When people say salvation must be merited, it becomes imperative immediately to add: “but not by you!” Only by Jesus Christ.  Lest any man should boast, you know.

To explain why only Jesus Christ merits your salvation, you have to mess up the authentic doctrine of the Atonement, painting God as Not At All Nice, Someone who must be repaid or persuaded or dealt with, so He will grant us salvation, because otherwise He either can't or won't. You in effect portray Him as Someone Who is looking out for His own interests at the expense of ours, as Someone Whose justice consists of punishing sin when the truth is, His justice means healing it.  God's Justice does not require simply to be “paid” for sin, as if that were possible, but to be RID of it.  Divine Justice is not to balance some mythological ledger, but to set things right.

To explain why salvation, though it indeed must be merited, cannot be merited by you, you have to mess up both your Christian anthropology and your whole theology of good works. You cannot allow that mankind can really do good (because good would be meritorious, obliging God to save); and that skews Christian anthropology. You cannot allow that mankind needs to do good to be saved (because that again would mean we could merit our own salvation); and this distorts the theology of good works. You get told such things as that good works flow easily and naturally from the regenerate person, perhaps without his even being aware of it, when everyone, every single one, who has ever tried to follow Christ all the way, every moment of every day, knows that is very far from the truth.

But if salvation is not a merit system period, if God just gives it outright and not as part of any deal, then the Atonement has another meaning in which God really is Very Nice Indeed, to put it far too mildly. He's too nice by far, for people who would rather see their fellow man fry in hell.  (Here is an interesting post on that subject by Anthony Iovine, a Lutheran minister, who observes that this is the wrong attitude for a Christian.)  If salvation is not a merit system period, then Christian anthropology will not be afraid to admit mankind has a free will and can indeed do some good things. And when it comes to good works, we need not worry whether they are meritorious or not, as that is irrelevant; salvation doesn't work that way. We need not deny the need for good works, as that need does not imply earning our salvation.

Good works have a different role to play.  Good works, meaning works of faith, neither cause nor only demonstrate our salvation; they ARE it.  For salvation is not merely a ticket into heaven in the hereafter; salvation is being made holy, as God is holy, so as to be united in bliss with Him, both now and forever.  

The works of faith are our salvation.  They do not earn or cause it.  That, to us, ould be a bit like saying, “My headache causes pain.” Nor do they simply manifest our salvation. That would be like saying, “My headache shows that I have pain.” No, good works, works of faith ARE your salvation, as your headache IS pain.  That is, good works are the shape and form our faith takes, and our salvation. We are saved from being sinners to being set on the right path, and being able (even though in infantile ways, at first) to do works pleasing to God. We are saved from being  faithless, mean, nasty, selfish slaves of passions to being trusting, kind, pure, self-sacrificing, free servants of our Lord. We are being saved from our wretchedness to His blessedness. We are being transfigured into His image. (No, not all in a moment.)  Good works are not all salvation is, but they are a very large part of what salvation is. And that is one sense in which we mean it when we say good works are “necessary for salvation.” It’s a redundancy.

But if salvation is becoming conformed to the image of the Son, then the necessity of good works takes on another sense, as well.  Good works reinforce that transformation.  Good works exercise our spirit and strengthen our faith to do more.  The more good we do, the more like the Son we are.  The more like the Son we are, the more glorious our salvation, not waiting until the hereafter, but beginning here and now. 

Good works merit nothing.  And good works are absolutely necessary.


Anam Cara said...

Thank you so much for once again a wonderfully clear layman's explanation for those of us who are bears with very little brain.

I am sending this to friends (and Dan - see below) with whom I have had this discussion - you explain it better than I ever could/have.

Also, remember a long time ago you wrote "Why did Jesus have to die?" I think I wrote to you about my son Dan then. (He was very devout growing up and wanted to be a youth minister, but lost his faith in, of all places, Bible college and then declared himself to be agnostic.) I printed it all out made it into a little booklet and sent it to him.
Then later I sent Matthew Gallatin's podcast series.

Today he posted the link to one of Pilgrims in Progress podcasts on his facebook. Perhaps the seeds planted so long ago are beginning to take root.

He and his family will be here with us for Christmas. Please pray for them that they will go with us to Sunday's Divine Liturgy.

James the Thickheaded said...

I admire your way of laying this out. Tell me you've taught Sunday School and I'll say it shows (in a good way). Tell me you haven't, and I'll say you should.

Ezekiel said...


You have a way with words, dear friend ... want to come to Swansea, IL and join my Church School staff? :)

Seriously, I believe you've done an excellent job in dealing with a topic that I've wrestled with with my Lutheran friends and former colleagues!

Rdr. Ezekiel

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Never have taught Sunday School except briefly in the days when I was attending a Catholic parish. The parents became very upset when it became known I was not a Catholic, and that was the end of that...

But it's very kind of you to suggest it.

:-) Happy Thanksgiving!

GretchenJoanna said...

Someone I know read your explanation and asked, "I don't really understand why Christ was "necessary" if he didn't... well, merit our salvation for us? Was he just here to rid the world of sin? How does this bridge us to a Holy God?"
It's hard to think outside of the box one was studying in for 20 years. Maybe you, Anastasia, and others can help.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Dear Gretchen Joanna,

"JUST to rid the world of sin"??? Yes, that's basically it.

I think Hebrews 2:14-17 sums it up nicely:

Hbr 2:14 Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil;
Hbr 2:15 And deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.
Hbr 2:16 For verily he took not on [him the nature of] angels; but he took on [him] the seed of Abraham.
Hbr 2:17 Wherefore in all things it behoved him to be made like unto [his] brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things [pertaining] to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people.

Now we cannot be "reconciled" (one) with the immortal God as long as we have mortality in us. Christ came and destroyed death for us, to make a bridge with God.

Of course, oneness had to be achieved at the moral level also, and Jesus perfectly fulfilled the will of God on behalf of us all, so that all who are in Him, clothed with Him, partake of His perfect righteousness. But that doesn't MERIT salvation; that IS salvation.

My series of posts called, "Why Did Jesus Die?" answers the question in more detail, I suspect, than most people are probably willing to take time to read, but I point it out just in care the interest is that serious. It's 16 posts in all, if I remember correctly. I'll see if I can give you the link to it shortly.

As to your other question, I'm thinking about it. And going to ask my husband, who has been giving this a great deal of thought for a long time. Stay tuned!


GretchenJoanna said...

Thank you! And I meant to say that you can just delete that other comment/question if you want since it didn't really belong where I put it.

GretchenJoanna said...

I found the posts on Why Did Jesus Die?, tagged Atonement, in your July 2008 posts, and there are two posts on my other question among them. So I'm all set, no need for you to write the same things again. Thank you VERY much!