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.