Note: The following was written before my conversion to Orthodoxy and no longer represents my own opinions.
Quite right, they were broken off for their unbelief, but you stand by your faith. Do not be conceited, but fear…
These plain words teach us one thing: we don’t maintain our salvation with works or outward sacraments. We stand by faith and faith alone.
As we already covered earlier, Catholic writers predating Luther used the term “faith alone” to speak of how Christians are saved. Some Roman Catholic apologists respond that we are justified initially by faith, but that Christians are continually justified with their faith and works both playing a role.
While Protestants will not disagree over the necessity of works (“faith, if it has no works, is dead,” James 2:17), they argue that faith is synonymous with works. This means that faith actually saves but the works are the fruit of faith. No serious Protestant is saying one can have faith alone and then live a life of blatant sin, as that would not be faithful living at all!
So, the real disagreement is not over works, but over the role of sacraments. Most Protestants, aside from Baptists and their offshoots, believe that God has given to the Church sacraments as a means of dispensing additional grace to believers.
God gives all sorts of grace. For example, God gives grace to both the wicked and righteous by giving them food. Further, He gives the grace of belief, and to those same believers, He gives grace upon grace so that they grow in faith and good works. In this context, the sacraments are a means of greater grace, though not of greater salvation.
We may glean this from how Cyril of Jerusalem writes of Rom 11:20 in light of baptism:
If you stand in faith, blessed are you; if you have fallen in unbelief, from this day forward cast away your unbelief, and receive full assurance…For He is present in readiness to seal your soul, and He shall give you that Seal at which evil spirits tremble, a heavenly and sacred seal, as also it is written, In whom also ye believed, and were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise. Yet He tries the soul. He casts not His pearls before swine; if you play the hypocrite, though men baptize you now, the Holy Spirit will not baptize you. But if you approach with faith, though men minister in what is seen, the Holy Ghost bestows that which is unseen (Catechetical Lecture 17, Chapters 35 and 36).
The historical teaching of the Church has been that if one dies before receiving baptism, that one is baptized (i.e. “surrounded”) by the Holy Spirit through faith. This is because faith alone saves a man from his sins, not merely water that cleans the outside of one’s body (1 Pet 3:21).
Cyril writes that because we stand by faith, the sacrament apart from faith is void of the Spirit and powerless. Some argue that “baptism now saves you,” but Titus 3:5 is talking specifically about baptism by the Holy Spirit (accompanied by water, blood, or chiefly desire). This is because the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is the true baptism and this as Cyril points out comes about only by faith. We signify this baptism with water. The “seal” of the Holy Spirit which is given to believers by baptism guarantees salvation (2 Cor 1:22, Eph 4:30).
Why this long discussion on sacraments? Because when some Roman Catholics (or Eastern Orthodox, among others) invoke James 2:24 that we are “saved by works and not by faith alone,” what they have in view is that the sacraments are needed for salvation.
So, while faith initially justifies a man, it merely is his initiation into the salvation club (i.e. the Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, etc.) In order to maintain that salvation and stay in the club, God has given sacraments as means of grace and they can only be meted out through the Church (i.e. the RCC, EO, etc.) Therefore, faith alone really does not save, because sacraments are needed too.
However, how does this make sense with Rom 11:20? “[T]hey were broken off for their unbelief, but you stand by your faith.” In the sacradotal view, we don’t stand by faith but by performing sacraments.
This is not a gross generalization. Augustine, as do modern Catholic thinkers, teach that apart from faith an infant is saved by virtue of the sacrament of baptism…that very same sacrament which according to Cyril was powerless apart from faith!
Perhaps it is not coincidental that Cyril, who wrote more on baptism than any other Church Father, never once mentioned infant baptism in his writings. If he did, it would contradict his view of the sacraments!
Hence, any view that sacraments save men, is at best radically inconsistent. Case in point: Apologists that argue sacraments are performed by faith will, at the same time, argue that baptism can save unbelieving infants. How can the sacrament of baptism, under this faithless circumstance, be a faithful sacrament?
Therefore, it is clear that faith alone both saves a man and maintains that saved state. Jews were broken off for their unbelief, but Christians stand by faith. Sacraments may be a means of additional grace to the faithful, but they in of themselves are void and do nothing to save a man.
If someone trusts in Christ like the thief on the cross and dies before receiving any sacraments, he is still saved. However, if one trusts in Christ and like most others lives for a time, will he seek baptism and the Lord’s Supper? Of course. No true believer, guided by the same Holy Spirit who inspired the writers of the Scriptures, will desire not to do something that the Holy Spirit commands in the Scripture. So, sacraments do not save, nor do they make us stand as it is faith that does. But, faith will encourage the believer to receive sacraments from the Church.