It is often stereotyped that Roman Catholics believe in purgatory and Orthodox/Protestants do not. In reality, the Orthodox position is far closer to the Roman Catholicism’s than Protestantism’s. However, to appreciate this, it requires understanding the Orthodox view of merit and how this ties into the afterlife.
The Orthodox View of Merits. At first glance, the idea of “merits” seems irreconcilable with Orthodox soteriology. For example, Saint Nikolai of Zica wrote that “we are saved by God’s grace, and not by our merits and work” and Vladimir Lossky observed the following: “The notion of merit is foreign to the Eastern tradition.”
However, the term “merit” has been used in Orthodox writings. For example, the Synod of Jerusalem in 1672 adopted the Confession of Dositheus which asserted:
[Works are] not the correlative of faith, but the faith which is in us, justifies through works, with Christ. But we regard works not as witnesses certifying our calling, but as being fruits in themselves, through which faith becomes efficacious, and as in themselves meriting, through the Divine promises that each of the Faithful may receive what is done through his own body, whether it be good or bad [2 Cor 5:10] (Decree 13).
At first glance, the document appears to be “Roman Catholic” in its usage of the term “merit.” After all, it seems to say that works “in themselves” merit justification. Hence, the works of the individual, on top of Jesus Christ’s works, are awarded with justification.
As we discussed in the previous article, while Roman Catholicism affirms that God rewards man’s merits “gratuitously,” this gratuity is in name-only as in fact God obliges Himself to recompense man to the point of mathematical exactitude.
This is not true in Orthodoxy. Decree 13 must be understood within an Orthodox context in which a “tit for tat” view of God is not what is being communicated. Man does not accumulate merits in order to attain salvation as a gratuitous, yet obligatory gift from God. Rather, Orthodoxy focuses on what salvation is: Theosis.
Orthodoxy teaches that works are “fruits in themselves” of salvation and not merely “witnesses” of salvation. Good works are our salvation, they are the new creation (2 Cor 5:17) that God is making us into (Eph 2:10)–this is why “faith…justifies through works.”
Because salvation is Theosis, we will have an eternity of bearing “fruits,” becoming evermore Christlike so that we actually are one with Christ. We are meriting salvation by virtue of experiencing it, becoming God by participating in His divine energy (Gal 2:20). So, merit is not something we give to God in exchange for the grace of salvation, but it is within the Orthodox context an experience of God’s goodness–a literal participating in His divine energy.
Theosis and the Energy/Essence Distinction. A brief and clumsy summary of the energy-essence distinction is as follows: God may be understood as both energy and essence. God’s “substance” i.e. what He is “made of” if we may conjure such a thing, is His essence. God’s essence’s effects are His energies so that they may be categorized, but not separated from, one another in that we are not dividing God into different kinds of gods.
A rough analogy would be equating God’s essence with a flame and His energy with the effects of the flame. One cannot divorce a flame’s heat and light from the flame itself. Yet, the heat and light are not the flame. Hence, men cannot share God’s essence as we cannot become a flame while still being men–we would be destroyed for “God is a consuming fire” (Heb 12:29). But, we can participate in the energies of the flame. The closer we walk to it, the brighter and warmer we get.
The Orthodox view of salvation, therefore, is that the works being “fruits in themselves” are literally us participating in God’s energy, as it is God who works in us to will and to act (Phil 2:13). This acting in a Godlike manner and being conformed to Him is salvation. Hence, the working of God’s will is an experience His “energy,” which literally effects salvation itself.
God has saved us by atoning for our sins on the cross, as He has paid our penalty and we no longer have a debt. Getting out of jail is far short of living in Paradise. God continues to save us by not only forgiving debt, but by increasing our sanctification, provided we work out our salvation in fear and trembling (Phil 2:12). This fear and trembling is simply us drawing closer to the flame, and as a result getting brighter and warmer.
Theosis and Merit. Hence, we are not meriting salvation in the sense that our works atone for sins (this is effectually the Roman Catholic view,) but rather we are experiencing salvation in our works. So, when Decree 13 uses the term “merit” it is with a completely different context than the Roman Catholic usage.
Further proof of this may be seen in how Orthodoxy speaks of the “Treasury of Merits.” Saint Philaret of Moscow writes as follows:
His [Jesus’] voluntary suffering and death on the cross for us, being of infinite value and merit, as the death of One sinless, God and man in one person, is both a perfect satisfaction of the justice of God, which had condemned us for sin to death, and a fund of infinite merit, which has obtained him the right, without prejudice to justice, to give us sinners pardon of our sins, and grace to have victory over sin and death (Large Russian Catechism of Philaret, 208).
While there is a sense that certain actions Christians perform effect the forgiveness of sins (i.e. confession in James 5:15-16, almsgiving in Luke 11:41, Tob 12:9) we must not understand these things as adding on top of the “perfect satisfaction” and “infinite merit” that Christ provides us. Rather, they are actions in which the heavenly reality becomes available to us within our material existence by virtue of our metaphysical union with Christ and our conforming ourselves to Him (Phil 3:10).
As Saint Augustine asserts, “passages of Holy Scripture…teach us that no man can obtain eternal life without that union with Christ which is effected in Him and with Him, when we are imbued with His sacraments and incorporated with the members of His body” (On Merit and the Forgiveness of Sins, and the Baptism of Infants, Book III, Chap 19).
This is why when Orthodoxy teaches we are saved through faith and not works, the teaching is that faith includes not only the intellect, but also the body and soul living out the faith and making it real. As Jeremias II of Constantinople wrote, “good works are not separate from, but necessary for, true faith.” (See also what the early church fathers wrote about faith here.)
Through faith, Christ’s infinite merit is applied to us and transforms us. It is not a mere financial transaction that pays the Father back for injustice done, but it is a wealth of goodness intrinsic to Christ Himself that both grants “us sinners pardon of our sins and the grace to have victory over sin and death.” In short, a real participation in God exists when we are in metaphysical union with Him–not a theoretical financial accounting of merits and demerits. Because we are literally living “in Christ,” this participation in God’s energies applies the atoning effects of the cross to us. All things that assist in our Theosis, such as correct belief, almsgiving, fastings, and the sacraments, tap us into Christ’s infinite merit because we are literally experiencing Christ in us through these things.
Conclusion. In a typical Orthodox matter, there is no short way to elucidate how merits relate to salvation. What we can affirm, in a short amount of words, is something very similar to what Roman Catholics teach: that good works merit heavenly rewards in the judgement. However, while Roman Catholics essentially treat merits as if they were assets used to purchase salvation, Orthodox reject this. Orthodoxy teaches that salvation is a literal experience of God Himself and that the works that merit salvation are the actual fruit of salvation–they are God’s salvation manifesting itself in our lives.
Perhaps the chief difference between the Orthodox and Western-Christian paradigm is that the West views salvation chiefly as a reward given by, and therefore separate from, God. Grace is created. Orthodox view salvation as a participation in God’s energies which conform us increasingly into the likeness of Christ. Grace is uncreated.
What are the ramifications of Orthodoxy’s view of salvation and the afterlife? We will cover this in our next article.