A parable that often troubled me as a Protestant was that of the wise and foolish builders. The reason that this was so was because the parable clearly taught that doing something saved what was built from the onslaught of flood waters:

But why do you call Me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do the things which I say? Whoever comes to Me, and hears My sayings and does them, I will show you whom he is like: He is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid the foundation on the rock. And when the flood arose, the stream beat vehemently against that house, and could not shake it, for it was founded on the rock. But he who heard and did nothing is like a man who built a house on the earth without a foundation, against which the stream beat vehemently; and immediately it fell. And the ruin of that house was great (Luke 6:46-49).

Without copiously consulting commentaries and the fathers of the Church, I think we can agree about the following:

  1. The parable is meant to explain why those who simply say “Lord, Lord” are not saved during the judgement (Matt 7:21).
  2. “Building” in this parable is the hearing of Christ’s teachings and applying them (i.e. “good works.”)
  3. The “rock” in the parable is Jesus Christ.
  4. The “flood” is a metaphor for tribulations that try the faith of a Christian.
  5. The person who did build on the rock is the man whose “faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect” (James 2:22).
  6. The person who did not build on the rock is the man who “says he has faith but does not have works” and is therefore not saved (James 2:14).

While we Orthodox would agree with Protestants that one can be saved by faith alone with absolutely no works (like the thief on the cross), we would additionally emphasize that this faith is qualitatively different than mere intellectual adherence to Christianity. In Protestantism this is often called “saving faith” vis a vis “dead [i.e. not real] faith.” Orthodoxy has a similar idea, teaching that faith is a profound state of being, combining  childlike dependence and trust in God with all due humility.

This humility must be Christlike, who:

Being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross (Phil 2:6-8).

Such humility includes a great love for God and a willingness to accept His will. Jesus Christ reigned as uncreated God and volunteered to become a human slave, sacrificing His own life for the guilty who hated Him. Christ’s unwavering obedience and unparalleled humility is what the Holy Spirit is sanctifying us for so that we may attain a mere fraction of it.

The thief on the cross had this mindset through faith without works. So did the Publican, which is why we do not fast for a week commemorating him.

The foolish builder did not have this sort of faith.

As Father Daniel Sysoev taught, “The Orthodox faith must work through love.”

And what is this “love?” “ By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us” (1 John 3:16). Love is the selfless giving of oneself without regard for the cost.

Such a faith is radical as it requires an extreme Christlikeness. Saint Paul sincerely declared that he would be willing to go to Hell so that others could be saved (Rom 9:3)! The aforementioned repentant thief did not desire his own salvation, but rather simply to be remembered by Jesus Christ in paradise. Unless your faith has this sort of love, that of the canonized saints, your faith is not “perfect.” Such a faith cannot save you on the day of tribulation, where uneasy faith does not have the roots to survive (Matt 13:1-23).

“Wait a second,” you may say. “I’m doomed! I don’t have that sort of faith!”

Do not despair, because it is not a mystery how we may have “saving faith.” God has given us opportunities to love Him and our neighbor so “you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13). Works gives us a means to live out and make our faith real. As James teaches, “saving faith” is “faith…made perfect.” In other words, it has good works done for the sake of faith in God, like Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac or Samson’s destruction of the Philistine temple.

When we see such works, though I am sure ours are much more humble than the ones just listed, God is doing something real in changing us. He is perfecting our faith. This should give us confidence that God is saving us and is developing in us true faith and dependence upon Him.

Wait a second! Does this mean that now we are saved by “faith and works?” Yes and no. “Yes,” inasmuch as works are the means in which faith is perfected–and it needs to be perfected (in the process of becoming perfect, not perfect in of itself) in order to be salvific. “No,” inasmuch as works are not the basis of our salvation.

What proof do we have that this is the teaching of the Orthodox Church? The only Orthodox teachings with any sort of claim to universal authority on the subject of soteriology are Decrees 9 and 13 of the Council of Dositheus:

We believe that no one can be saved without faith. By faith we mean the right notion that is in us concerning God and divine things, which, working by love, that is to say, by [keeping] the Divine commandments, justifies us with Christ; and without this [faith] it is impossible to please God.

We believe a man to be not simply justified through faith alone, but through faith which works through love, that is to say, through faith and works. But [the idea] that faith can fulfill the function of a hand that lays hold on the righteousness which is in Christ, and can then apply it unto us for salvation, we know to be far from all Orthodoxy. For faith so understood would be possible in all, and so none could miss salvation, which is obviously false. But on the contrary, we rather believe that it is 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 {cf. 2 Corinthians 5:10} that each of the Faithful may receive what is done through his own body, whether it be good or bad.

As Decree 13 states in Protestant-unfriendly language, “the faith which is in us, justifies through works, with Christ.” Protestants misread this as “works justify,” but this is not what it says: “The faith which is in us justifies.” This occurs “through works,” which is a clear reiteration of James 2:22.

Jesus Christ in the parable is encouraging us to apply what He teaches, because this is the means in which we perfect our faith. Most of us hear about Jesus Christ are extremely happy to hear we are forgiven and then repent of our evil deeds. I am sure we all agree, proper repentance must be consistent with God’s revealed will. We do not get to choose what repentance is, after all.

This is why in Protestant Gospel presentations, such as “The Way of the Master,” to the “non-Christians” we expound the good news of Christ and to the false converts we expound the necessity of worshiping God in church and repenting of sins.

So, Protestants already know we cannot be saved apart from repentance but they do not seem to know why. After all, if we were to be saved simply by “laying hold of the righteousness of Christ” by mere intellectual assent, then almost every nominal Christian would be saved.

However, we all know this not to be true. So, the mystery to the Protestant is whether his faith is “real” enough to save him. At best, one could look at their works and, if they look good, speculate they are saved through faith. Take heed, as the Pharisee’s spiritual accounting in Luke 18:9-14 proved to be wrong! There is no actual assurance in such a soteriology.

Orthodoxy correctly teaches that the reason intellectual assent cannot save is because faith must be something transformative in the heart of the believer. The wise builder listened and built his house properly. As a Christian, he applied Christ’s teachings thereby making Jesus Christ Himself his foundation, not merely paying lip service to Christ. So, there is no guess work in Orthodoxy whether we are saved. One’s salvation is experienced in real time as we continue to live by faith and abide in Christ. Prayer, fasting, worship, and sacraments are all part of this.

Conclusion. Ultimately, what is the application of the parable? Probably everyone reading this now does not have the radical saving faith of Saint Paul or the thief. But, that’s okay. God knows this and He loves us. Furthermore, He does not leave us where we are but gives us direction: apply My teachings.

By forgiving others, fasting, praying without hypocrisy, worshiping, partaking in sacraments of the Church, and applying the Scripture’s moral teachings we repent (i.e. turn) from our old way of doing things and move towards God, living our lives in the Christlike manner that God intends for us. Through this transformative process, God redeems us and prepares us for heaven. This is how our faith in Christ saves us.

So, do not despair, we are not earning our way to heaven. If we had to do enough good, we would all be lost, for our standard for good would have to meet the bar of God’s perfection. That’s why Orthodox Christians pray, “May my faith replace my deeds, O God, for thou will find no deeds to justify me.” So, take courage that we all start at different points and will end our journeys differently. We trust in the grace of God and His forgiveness to make right our imperfect repentance.