As a Protestant convert to Orthodoxy, I did not decide to take the plunge until I was sure that Orthodoxy retained “the Gospel.” The Good News of Jesus Christ is that He lived a perfect life that we could not live, paying the full penalty of sin on the cross, and by His life making sinful people like us both forgiven and righteous. This is accomplished by grace, through faith, and not by works.
Now, this extrapolation of the Gospel “sounds Protestant” to many, but it in fact is taught by the early church fathers and fathers of the Orthodox Church up to this present day.
The following is written by a recent evangelist and martyr of the Orthodox Church, Father Daniel Sysoev, in his book On Fear of God and Good Works. He was known for his ardent desire to have Russia’s missionary work expanded and evangelism among his own people–particularly Russia’s neo-pagans, heretical Protestant sects (i.e. Jehovah’s Witnesses and Pentecostals), and Muslims. He particularly disliked evangelizing Muslims but spoke of a calling from God to do this work regardless. After 14 different threats to his life, he was assassinated at the age of 35 by Muslim extremists, leaving behind his wife and three children. While the future cannot be known with certainty, it is probable he will eventually be canonized as a Russian Orthodox Saint.
As we will see in the following, Father Sysoev clearly presents the Gospel and then faithfully describes the role of good works. While outside the scope of this article, the crucial difference between Orthodoxy and Protestantism is in what Sysoev calls “assimilating” salvation and what Reformed Protestants call “the sanctification process.” For Orthodox like Sysoev, salvation is fully accomplished by union with Christ and it is manifested in living out this reality (i.e. “cooperating” with the grace of God.) It is this manifestation of grace which is how we will experience salvation for eternity.
Without further ado, an Orthodox Christian Gospel presentation:
Salvation Comes Not By Good Works Alone
First of all we must understand that we are not saved by good works. When the Jews asked the Lord what good works are required of us, Jesus answered and said unto them, This is the work of God, that ye believe on Him Whom He hath sent (Jn 6.29), that is, in Jesus Christ. This is the sole and most important good work, from which all other good works proceed. Faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, in God the Father who sent Him, and in the Holy Spirit justifies a man, making Him righteous. Faith in the Trinity and the redeeming sacrifice of Jesus Christ the God-Man is the sole means of our justification. A person who believes that one can be justified by any means other than the redeeming sacrifice of Christ is excommunicated from the Church.
The Apostle Paul says the same in the Epistle to the Ephesians: But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them (Eph 2:4-10).
In order to obtain salvation, first and foremost a person is required to believe in Jesus Christ, repent of his evil deeds, desire not to repeat them, and participate in the sacrament by which salvation is acquired–the sacrament of holy baptism…[S]alvation has already been given and it is our task to assimilate and preserve it. Salvation requires Orthodox faith, a desire to live according to the commandments, and repentance of sins. Thus, salvation has already been received. All our sins are washed away from us [in baptism], and the ancestral decay that originated with the first man is destroyed: the evil that is stored up in our souls is obliterated…
Salvation must be assimilated. It is given so that we might put it to use. Here it is important to recall the Gospel account in which the Lord says the Kingdom of Heaven is like a man who went away into a far country to receive his kingdom. In leaving he assembled his servants and distributed talents among them [proceeds to quote Matt 25:22-30]…
Why Are Good Works Necessary?
The Apostle Paul answers this question as follows: For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath ordained that we should walk in them (Eph 2:10). People are created anew in Christ. When a person receives baptism in the waters of the font he is buried together with Christ, and when he emerges from the font he is united unto Christ…God creates us anew and makes us new beings, having in ourselves two natures: human nature, given us by the Lord at our creation, with particular propensities, talents, and abilities; and divine nature, which works within us the uncreated power of God. This uncreated power is called the grace of the Holy Spirit, Who comes to dwell in our hearts from the moment of baptism…[Talents] are a gift of the Spirit that is given to a person. Gifts vary depending on one’s ability to employ them, and for this reason the Lord requires that each person answer for how he put them to use. These gifts must be increased. We are created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has destined us to do.
The venerable Seraphim of Sarov related how to test whether we are doing good works or not. If a good work produces the grace of the Holy Spirit, if you sense within yourself the uncreated power of the Lord God and the Holy Spirit after doing a good work–that is the fruits described in the epistle to the Galatians: The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance (Gal 5:22)–it means the good work was done for God’s sake. If not, you have labored in vain. For this reason it is required that every good work we do invariably be done to the glory of God, and that we remember that every good work must be rooted in faith. As the Apostle Paul said, For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love (Gal 5:6). The Orthodox faith must work through love. If a person does good works that are not grounded in faith, he labors to no purpose. These good works will be of no account in God’s eyes, and will be of no help to anyone.
Daniel Sysoev. On Fear of God and Good Works. Publishing Board of the Russian Orthodox Church. 2018: p. 5-12.
I like the way you put this: Faith. “This is the sole and most important good work,”. Faith is indeed a work, it is something we do. The fact that Christ died for our sins 2,000 years ago is not enough. We have to play our part. We have to respond to god’s grace by faith.
Clearly, just as faith is needed for salvation, in fact it is foundational, so are good deeds.
James 2 on Faith and Good Deeds.
14 How does it help, my brothers, when someone who has never done a single good act claims to have faith? Will that faith bring salvation?
15 If one of the brothers or one of the sisters is in need of clothes and has not enough food to live on,
16 and one of you says to them, ‘I wish you well; keep yourself warm and eat plenty,’ without giving them these bare necessities of life, then what good is that?
17 In the same way faith, if good deeds do not go with it, is quite dead.
18 But someone may say: So you have faith and I have good deeds? Show me this faith of yours without deeds, then! It is by my deeds that I will show you my faith.
19 You believe in the one God — that is creditable enough, but even the demons have the same belief, and they tremble with fear.
20 Fool! Would you not like to know that faith without deeds is useless?
21 Was not Abraham our father justified by his deed, because he offered his son Isaac on the altar?
22 So you can see that his faith was working together with his deeds; his faith became perfect by what he did.
23 In this way the scripture was fulfilled: Abraham put his faith in God, and this was considered as making him upright; and he received the name ‘friend of God’.
24 You see now that it is by deeds, and not only by faith alone, that someone is justified.
25 There is another example of the same kind: Rahab the prostitute, was she not justified by her deeds because she welcomed the messengers and showed them a different way to leave?
26 As a body without a spirit is dead, so is faith without deeds.
James repeats his teaching on Faith and Good deeds seven times in 13 verses.
Romans 2:6-7 “For God will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well doing (good works) seek for glory and honour and immortality, he will give eternal life” – note “by patience in well doing….. he will give eternal life.” Eternal life.
1 Cor 13:13 “13 As it is, these remain: faith, hope and love, the three of them; and the greatest of these is love.” (charity).
Rev 3:15 “15 “‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were cold or hot! 16 So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth.”
Rev 20:12 “the dead were judged from what was written in the books, as their deeds deserved.”
Paul tells us that love is greater than faith, and so it is, because God is love. If we have love, our sins will be forgiven – viz the woman with the alabaster jar of ointment – of whom Jesus says: “47 For this reason I tell you that her sins, many as they are, have been forgiven her, because she has shown such great love. ” Luke 7:47.
Good works build up the Body of Christ.
Things that build up the Body of Christ.
Worshipping and praising God.
Prayer of praise, thanksgiving and petition.
Reading and meditation on the Word of God.
Proclaiming the Gospel.
Teaching the Word of God.
Love of neighbor.
Forgiving our neighbor.
Feeding the hungry.
Clothing the poor.
Visiting the sick and those in prison.
Reading and meditation on the lives of the saints.
All of these are Good Works. The first effect of a good work is to increase the faith and charity of the one who practices it, as it flows from God’s grace. This in itself builds up the Body of Christ, as the good of one member of the Body of Christ results in the good of the whole Body of Christ, just as the hurt felt by one member of the Body of Christ results in the hurt of the whole Body of Christ.
It is important to point out, however, when this issue is debated the point at issue is not whether the “work of God” is “to believe in Him Whom He has sent.” Protestants are concerned about additional works. In RC parlance, what Sysoev is talking about is “inital justification,” which the CCC says explicitly is by faith alone/baptism. What SYsoev calls “assimilating salvation,” RCs call continuing justification and Protestants call “the sanctification process.” It’s ironic how much of the debate is over disagreement over words, but not concepts.
Not in the case of FreeGrace protestants/ dispensationalists. The only “true” Sola Fide protestants I know. They basically believe once you intellectually assent to Jesus being the son of God that died and rose for your sins, your saved. That’s it. You could murder 50 people the next minute and renounce God with all your being after you come to this belief, it doesn’t matter, you believed you have eternal life in Jesus Christ, so how could it be eternal if you could loose it? Their exegesis is very precise, though I disagree with it. This was the deciding matter in the “Lordship Controversy” between MacArthur and Zane Hodges.
Pitiful what constitutes “controversy.” This is why the Church did not historically take faith and works and place them against each other. In my humble view, Orthodox just must be careful not to respond against Protestantism in such a way to contradict Orthodox prayers and teachings.
I could not find a way to comment on your youtube “Questions about Orthodoxy: Different from Catholicism?” So permit me to post a response here, since the gospel is related to salvation.
1. If it is true that schismatics and even those who follow them will not be saved, and the Roman Catholics are probably and Protestants certainly are schismatic or following schismatics in your view, does that mean that Protestants and Roman Cathollics are all going to hell? If so, how is it that the Orthodox view Roman Catholics as possessing true apostolic succession?
2. How can it be true that “He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life” if you can believe but not be saved if you are following a schismatic?
3. Concerning the Russian schism or near schism with Constantinople: if schism happens, which part of the Orthodox Church would now be the “true” Church? Am I missing something? I will leave it at that for now.
– Sincerely, Roger
I am not an infallible Orthodox Pope, but herein lies my opinion:
1. Schismatics are not saved. Just like liars, thieves, perverts, and etcetera are not saved. Whether certain individuals who have stolen things, committed perverted acts, have done schismatic stuff are saved I don’t know. I do not judge individuals, but I can categrocially say I would not want to be a schismatic, liar, theive, murderer, pervert, etc as such as these do not inherit the kingdom of God.
2. Paul writes, “if he has faith that could move mountains, but has not love, he has nothing.” John also writes that “Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.” So, we cannot claim we have faith, but be murderers. James writes, “I will show you my faith by what I do.” Schism is murder against the Body of Christ.
3. As for the RUssian-COnstantinople situation, basic common sense makes it look like Constantinople is in the wrong. THe whole Orthodox world recognizes the Canonical church of Ukraine under Moscow,none have recognized Ukraine KP and UAOP. KP and UAOP also have some bishops lacking valid ordinations. Lastly, it is obviously a violation of charity for 20 years for Bartholomew to pubicly recognize the canonical CHurch of Ukraine and then, inexplicably, support the people whom he was literally condemning for 20 years–and then be at variance with the whole Church on the matter.
So, while it is not impossible that we might find the Church take Bartholomew’s side and he will be vindicated in the end, or that Moscow does the wrong thing for the right reasons and proves themselves schsimatics, these things are possible. However, it does not look like such right now.
In history, the schismatic is generally the one who starts replacing your bishops with his own bishops. So, the EP appears to be the one doing this by recognizing the schismatic line.
I think I understand the logic of your points. But I still have questions.
Regarding point 1, how can the Orthodox concede Roman Catholics to have true apostolic succession and yet deny that Roman Catholicism is, or is at least part of, the Church?
Regarding point 2, in quoting Jesus’ words from John 5:24, I am not saying that saving faith stands alone apart from things like love or the character of the one who has the faith.
Perhaps instead of going down that road a better question # 2 would have been, how do you more precisely define “following” a schismatic? Would that only be someone who knowingly does so, or would it include those born into a schismatic group, and who in merely accepting the traditions they have been given, could be considered as “following” a schismatic?
Regarding point 3, you said that basic common sense makes it look like Constantinople is in the wrong. Does basic common sense equal one’s own private judgment, and if so, how can we depend on it to lead us to the truth? Thanks in advance for any light you can shed on these.
Here’s my best understanding of the issue.
1. The OO, Assyrians, and probably Anglicans have the same succession. However, the break down in charity and Christian love by leaving the CHurch does not invalidate succession, but does render them as not a branch on the Tree per se.
2. This is a mystery. St Filaret of Moscow and Theodore the Recluse seemed open to the possibility of “Well meaning schismatics” attaining to some sort of grace. We know from Augustine that those schismatics who desired union (i.e. donatists who were geographically cut off from the Church) attained to salvation. I am personally more inclined towards Augustine’s view and St Filaret’s. The latter is a schismatical invincible ignorance while the former is a genuine desire for unity. So, my guess is, God knows the heart and knows when someone wants to be in the Church but cannot be. Hence, people newly evangelized like Cambodians or Burmese, mostly evangelized by Protestants, simply have never been exposed to Apostolic Christianity. They might genuinely think they are one with the Body and if they had access to Orthodoxy, would desire union with the Church. I don’t know, I am speculating, but I can see room for God’s grace there. However, what is theologically dangerous are speculations. What we know, without speculating, is that there is no salvation outside of the Church and schism is damnable. Sort of like us saying we know for a fact perverts to don’t go to heaven, but we don’t know the circumstances of each individual perverted person and how he/she stands with God.
3. Yes, personal judgement does come into play when someone “chooses a side.” I think we in the 21st century are in a lot more of a complicated situation than the 1st or 2nd century. Yet, we have access to way more info than those back then. So, who has the “leg up” in private judgement? I don’t know. This is why I alluded to that the dust might settle and Constantinople might actually be “correct”, even though they don’t look like they are. Ultimately, we must pray to God for wisdom and trust in His guidance.
I just read the following from St Cyprian:
“Although there can be no other baptism but one, they think that they can baptize; although they forsake the fountain of life, they promise the grace of living and saving water. Men are not washed among them, but rather are made foul; nor are sins purged away, but are even accumulated. Such a nativity does not generate sons to God, but to the devil. By a falsehood they are born, and they do not receive the promises of truth. Begotten of perfidy, they lose the grace of faith. They cannot attain to the reward of peace, since they have broken the Lord’s peace with the madness of discord.
12. Nor let any deceive themselves by a futile interpretation, in respect of the Lord having said, Wheresoever two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them. Matthew 18:20 Corrupters and false interpreters of the Gospel quote the last words, and lay aside the former ones, remembering part, and craftily suppressing part: as they themselves are separated from the Church, so they cut off the substance of one section.” (Treatise 1)