Grace and Works

I have remarked before how Orthodoxy is, to my mind, the most demanding of Christian groups, and yet it is, at the same time, the one that speaks the most of God’s mercy, love and grace. It is the Church that at once requires all those praying its Divine Liturgy to refer to oneself as the chiefest of sinners, and yet also, again and again, speaks of God the philanthropos, the Lover of mankind. For Orthodox there is no dichotomy between Law and Grace: we are called to be perfect even as our heavenly Father is perfect, and yet we are also taught that God accepts the humble who cry simply and from their heart: be merciful to me a sinner. For Protestant evangelicals looking from the outside in, there is a severity to Orthodox living that strikes many as off-putting, even cult-like. All of this, to Protestants, looks like “works righteousness.” What sort of God is served by all these fasting rules, by required confession, by closed Communion? But this is to miss the very heart of Orthodoxy, wherein Christ for us and for our salvation came down from heaven and was made man.

Orthodox see no dichotomy between grace and works because they, along with the Apostle James, see no dichotomy between faith and works. Whereas works are essential to living faith, and living faith essential to the reception of God’s grace, so, too, are works essential to the working out of God’s grace in a life. God, says St Paul, works in us for the purposes of our willing his good and perfect will. But the imperative comes first: work out your salvation with fear and trembling. Do it, but do it knowing that God is already alive in you working in you that you may work. We are indeed saved by grace through faith, not of our own works, but we are most definitely saved for works which God has created in advance for us to do.

The problem with the dichotomizing of grace and works is a problem of the heart. Or rather, the problem of a reason that has not yet descended to the heart. The opposition of grace and works is a paradigm of rationality, not a paradigm of the heart. If grace and works are viewed from the perspective of the heart there is no dichotomy. One receives grace, and so one works. And one works, and so one receives God’s grace. Not that our works are the foundation of our salvation, but that grace and works are co-operative: they work at the same time. It’s like the chicken and the egg. Which comes first? Both. Or, rather, God creates chickens to lay eggs. You can’t have one without the other.

The problem with settling grace and works talk in reason and leaving it there is that it reifies that which it should not: a heuristic device by which to understand grace. But properly lived the two are indistinguishable: did I give alms to the poor out of my own works or out of grace? Yes!

To see the distinction between this rational reification of a distinction and the life of it lived in the heart, one has only to visit the analogy of the love between the husband and a wife. Do I buy my wife flowers because I love her, or do I love her because I buy her flowers? What fool wishes to reify that distinction? Of course I buy flowers for my wife because I love her. And, in buying my wife flowers, I also really and efficaciously make real the love that motivated the purchase of those flowers? One does not love one’s wife in the abstract. There is no such thing as love as a genus. There is only the concrete love of this man for this woman, a love which is only found in the acts of love: acts which both create love and which foster the love that already exists.

But this is only realized in the heart. The heart knows that such distinctions are no distinctions. One simply loves. That love is both the motivation for the act and the act itself, an intertwined cord in which such distinctions make no real difference, because the loss of the one is the loss of the other.

And if I may, so it is with grace and works. Whatever help it might make in understanding the distinctions, heuristically, between grace and works, it ultimately fails if those distinctions are not erased in the fullness of the heart that is saved by grace for works and in its works fosters the grace that is there. Ultimately grace and works is the twin cord entwined about the heart, binding it in love to and for its Savior. To the heart centered in Christ, all works are a result of his grace, and all grace a dynamic and personal response to the works done for and by Christ.

The dichotomy and distinction between grace and works is nullified in the loving and surrendered heart which cares nothing for these distinctions, but only for the Christ who is at the center.

3 thoughts on “Grace and Works

  1. People carry on foolish conversations as soon as they move away from Your presence, my Wisdom. Those without faith speak about works, and those without works speak about faith.

    Each disparages what he does not have, and what he does have he proclaims throughout the marketplace.

    While You, O Lord, are filling my home with Your life-creating breath, I always forget to ask which is more important — faith or works? As soon as I offend You and feel abandoned by You, I angrily enter into people’s discussions, and support one side or the other.

    For without You I am like a weather vane on a chimney that rattles in the direction of the wind. When the wind of faith rises in my soul, I stand with those who have abandoned works and championed faith; when the wind of activity rises in my soul, I support the side of those who have abandoned faith and championed works.

    But in Your all-calming presence there is no wind, no swaying, no “doing things.” I neither feel faith nor see works; instead I feel and see only You, the living God. In truth, You are not my faith but my vision. And You are not my doing, but I am Your doing. And again I say: You are not my faith but I am Your faith, and Your trust.

    And so I teach those around me who are carrying on the debate: whoever has true faith in the Living God prefers to remain silent. And whoever performs a true work of God, prefers to remain silent. But whoever shuts up his faith with his mind, gladly squabbles about faith. And whoever does his own work and not God’s gladly boasts of his works.

    Deep is the tranquility of the soul in a man of faith, deeper than the tranquility at the bottom of the sea. For God’s Wisdom is born and resides in deep tranquility.

    Deep is the tranquility in the tongue of one who does God’s work, deeper than the tranquility of the iron in the heart of a mountain. For whoever does the work of another listens to instructions and carries them out, moreover he listens, and has no time to speak.

    I speak believing in works: Is not my prayer a working and reworking of my very self? Is not the whole world within me, from beginning to end, together with all the world’s poverty and impurity? Truly I am not without works, when I sweat and weep in prayer, but am immersed in the weighty task of helping the poor in my soul — healing the sick and casting out the unclean spirits from my soul.

    I speak believing in faith: Do I not awaken faith in my neighbors through the good works that I do?

    Is not my work in the world the song of my faith, the psalm of one saved among the unsaved? Who would stop the song in the throat of a brimming soul? Who would stop a brimming spring from flowing? Would the nymphs who guard the spring quarrel with the nymphs in the spring’s stream over which water is more beneficial? Truly, if there were no spring, there would be no stream.

    O my Lord, do not go far away from me, lest my soul succumb to meaningless quarrels. Silence in Your presence expands my soul; discussions in Your absence shrink her and expend her to the thinness of a boon of flax.

    I listened last time to the people squabbling, and You waved your hands and went far away. Indeed, those who truly have faith do not squabble with those who are true doers of Your work. This is the quarrel of servants with little faith and much ill will. Those who are of little faith squabble with the errand boys of the world. They are a dried-up spring quarrelling with a dried-out stream.

    While they were full, they both used to sing a true song of joy, and joyfully used to hail each other.

    But this is a malicious believer quarrelling with a malicious doer. What do I have in common with them? What ties me to them except compassion, which flows forth from Your radiance?

    Fill the house of my soul, O Life-Creating Spirit, so that I may become blind and not see angry squabbling people, and so that I may be deaf to their foolish discussion.

    They have slipped away from You, my Joy, therefore they engage in foolish discussions.

    I bow down and beseech You, tie my soul across the thousands of sunbeams to You, lest she slip away from You, and plunge into the cold abyss.

    –St. Nikolai of Ochrid and Zica, Prayers by the Lake, #83

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