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.