Faith and Works

A renown Protestant theologian recently accused the Eastern Orthodox Church of teaching a “cursed” theology of salvation by faith and works.

I have seen such attacks on the Orthodox Church before, and I usually ignore them due to the ignorance of the speaker.  But since this is a common misconception about Orthodoxy, I thought I would put together this article to hopefully provide clarity.

Hank Hanegraaff, the Bible Answer Man, has a 16 minute video posted below in which he refutes the mistakes that the Protestant theologian made.  He is more gracious and patient than me.  I’ll provide a summary of my understanding on this topic and then link to Mr. Hanegraaff’s video.

Neither works nor faith alone will save you

In the Bible, the Apostle James writes,

But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.  (1:22)

What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?  If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit?  Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. (2:14-17)

You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble! (2:19)

You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only. (2:24)

In other words faith alone cannot save.  To teach such an idea is to reject the above scriptures as well as many others.

Why then do people teach salvation through faith alone?

In Christianity, there has almost always been this understanding that faith and works go together, that one proves the other.  But the West got off track several hundred years ago when the Roman Catholics began selling indulgences, and then the Protestant Reformers jumped to the opposite extreme.   But the truth lies in the middle of the two extremes.

If someone has faith, then they will have works that display the faith is real.  If there are no works, that is, if the person’s life does not match up with their profession of faith, then they are playing make believe.  Faith and pretense are sometimes conflated, but are significantly different.

Do the scriptures conflict with one another on this topic?

Different scriptural authors have varied in their placement of emphasis depending on their target audience, but there is no conflict in their theology.

For example, the Apostle Paul, when writing to various groups being influenced by Judaizers (that is, those teaching that one must fulfill the Mosaic Law in order to be saved), emphasizes faith over works because keeping the Law of Moses is not sufficient to save.  The Gospel of John, in my opinion, emphasizes belief, and the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) emphasize works.  But they are not in conflict.  It is merely a matter of emphasis.

CS Lewis compared the faith vs. works debate to asking which blade on a pair of scissors was the most important.  It takes both to accomplish the task. [2]  In the scriptures and writings of the Orthodox Church, one will find emphasis depends on which “blade of the scissors” the author feels is especially dull.

A prayer for faith over works

In order to further prove that we Orthodox Christians do not believe in salvation through works, here is one of our daily morning prayers:

And again, O Saviour, save me by Thy grace, I pray Thee. For if Thou shouldst save me for my works, this would not be grace or a gift, but rather a duty…

If, then, faith in Thee saveth the desperate, behold, I believe, save me, for Thou art my God and Creator. Let faith instead of works be imputed to me, O my God, for Thou wilt find no works which could justify me. But may my faith suffice instead of all works, may it answer for, may it acquit me, may it make me a partaker of Thine eternal glory. [3]

In Summary

  • Do the Orthodox believe we are saved by faith? Yes, but not by faith alone.
  • Do the Orthodox believe that good works can save us?  No, but we believe that good works are the proof that one has faith, so that a “faith” without works is not real faith at all, but only playing make believe.

Faith without works, like a song you can’t sing
It’s about as useless as a screen door on a submarine
-Rich Mullins

End Notes

[1] Some people ask about the example of the thief on the cross, crucified next to Jesus.  He had faith and cried out, “Remember me, Lord, when You come into Your kingdom.”  Doubtless, innumerable other people have had last minute conversions on their death beds.  Where are their good works?  I believe their confession of faith is their good work.  God, knowing the heart of every man, will know whether the confession was genuine or not and He will judge accordingly.

[2] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity. (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), pp. 148–149.

[3] Holy Trinity Monastery, Jordanville Prayer Book. Prayer 8, pp. 23-24.

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Growing up in non-denominational churches, I became weary of many practices in the church. I decided it was time to find a church that enabled me to grow in my faith and talents, but that was also theologically deep. I was drawn to the Eastern Orthodox Church for several reasons. Check out my blog which details my journey into this ancient faith.

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