One of our martyrs, Fr Daniel Sysoev (d. 2009) taught the following about how we are saved in his book, On Fear of God and Good Works:
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. (p. 5)
One of our most recent saints and great teachers, himself a holocaust survivor, St Nicolai of Zica, in his catechism teaches:
The Christian faith is the knowledge of Christ–the most important mysteries of being and life–which knowledgeable men can only accept only by believing in Him and never acquiring it by their own efforts (p. 5).
I am not giving some private interpretation of Orthodox soteriology. I will be showing from the Scriptures, saints, and a conciliar statement how we are saved. We are “saved by grace, through faith, that not of yourselves it is the gift of God, not of works so no one may boast, for we are God’s workmanship created in Christ Jesus for good works.” (Eph 2:8-10)
Almost everyone seeing this is western. They are used to western theology. To understand an ancient Hebrew religion preserved for us mostly in Greek, we are going to have to unpack some Orthodox concepts.
As a disclaimer, orthodox teaching is not always the simplest interpretation of Scripture. But that’s okay. Think about Gal 4. Would you automatically associate the episode with Hagar as her being an allegory for the Mosaic Law?
This is why we interpret Scripture according to how the saints interpret it. Why? Let’s look at 1 Cor 2:13-16:
These things we also speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teaches but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual. But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. But he who is spiritual judges all things, yet he himself is rightly judged by no one. For “who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct Him?” But we have the mind of Christ.
Who better has the mind of Christ than the martyrs and those who sacrificed so much to bequeath us the Scriptures? These are our saints over centuries!
So, when I can, I will give relevant Scriptures. Then I will exegete their meanings according to the saints.
- God’s grace is a participation in God Himself (i.e. God’s “energy”)
This is a basic, but extremely important concept that connects everything. We cannot talk about what it means to be saved without talking about this.
What does it mean to have God’s grace? Orthodox believe grace is participating in God Himself via His energies.
“Energy” means in layman’s English “work.” The work of the sun is that it produces heat and light. The heat and light cannot be divorced from the sun, but neither are they the sun’s substance (which is hydrogen in the state of plasma.)
The Scriptures speak of something similar in episodes where the saints see or are imparted God’s “glory.”
We can see this in Saint Stephen’s vision:
But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and said, “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” (Acts 7:55-56)
Jesus also prays:
And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one…I desire that they also whom You gave Me may be with Me where I am, that they may behold My glory which You have given Me. (John 17:22, 24)
In the Scriptures, we do not actually see “God” in His divine substance, but we do see His “glory.” In medieval Judaism, this “glory” is referred to as the “Shekinah” to differentiate between the presence of God’s glory and the actual substance of God.
In layman’s English, we experience the work of God, which is God, but we do not see, or get, a “piece” of God.
In Orthodoxy, we understand “glory” to be His energy because the glory is an aspect of God. We know this because the Father imparted “glory” to the Son. However, it is also imparted to us. Obviously, God does not impart us His substance, any more than the sun’s rays imparts us the substance of the sun.
This is implicit in the New Testament. We are saved because we have been given God’s glory, which is God Himself–but not His substance. The term “in Christ” presumes upon our salvation being a direct participation in God Himself. It is not coincidentally the most used phrase in the New Testament:
…being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. (Rom 3:24)
Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom 6:11)
For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 6:23)
As we can see, we Orthodox Christians believe in a vivifying faith where it is not us who live, but Christ who lives in us. (Gal 2:20)
- The original sin was a “wage for sin” for turning away from “Life,” (John 14:6) who is God. Disconnecting oneself from Life, which we Orthodox understand as God’s vivifying energy, leads to death.
The Scriptures teach:
God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life. (1 John 5:11-12)
And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being. (Gen 2:7)
And the Lord God said, My Spirit shall certainly not remain among these men for ever, because they are flesh, but their days shall be an hundred and twenty years. (Gen 6:3 LXX, Targum, Peshitta, Vulgate)
The Spirit of God has made me, And the breath of the Almighty gives me life. (Job 33:4)
If He should set His heart on it, If He should gather to Himself His Spirit and His breath, All flesh would perish together, And man would return to dust. (Job 33:14-15)
You take away their breath, they die and return to their dust. You send forth Your Spirit, they are created. (Ps 104:29-30)
[F]or us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we for Him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and through whom we live. (1 Cor 8:6)
As we can see we get life from God alone in His Son through the Spirit. Not coincidentally, this sounds a lot like baptism.
According to the saints, this “life” or tentative “immortality” preceded the Fall as long as man cooperated with God’s will—this cooperation keeps us in Christ–or in Orthodox parlance, connected to God’s energy.
[T]hey [Adam and Eve] were made like God, free from suffering and death, provided that they kept His commandments, and were deemed deserving of the name of His sons. (2nd century, Saint Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, Chap 124)
What is base he [Adam] readily chose, following his wife, and neglected what is true and good; on which account he exchanged his immortal life for a mortal life, but not forever. (3rd century, Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, Book 2, Chap 19)
[The Fall was caused by t]he failure of their will to keep a direct course to what is good, and its consequent declension from the angelic life. (4th century, Gregory of Nyssa, On the Making of Man, Par 4)
Now since by a motion of our self-will we contracted a fellowship with evil…so, falling away from that blessedness which is involved in the thought of passionlessness, we have been viciously transformed…[Original sin is] an erroneous judgment as to what is morally good, and this error has wrought the effect of substantiating a contrary condition, that part of us which has thus been made useless is dissolved by its reception of this contrary…Now since both soul and body have a common bond of fellowship in their participation of the sinful affections, there is also an analogy between the soul’s and body’s death…the participation in evil observable both in soul and body is of one and the same character, for it is through both that the evil principle advances into actual working. (4th century, Greg of Nyssa, Great Catechism, chap 8)
So, original sin is not a debt or arbitrary penalty for something someone else has done. It is the condition of all mankind being, by birth, cut off from the abiding grace of God, which is His vivifying energy which imparts Life. We are cut off from this energy due to our propensity towards, but not specifically our acts of, sin. Otherwise, infants would not die.
- Salvation is becoming God according to His energy, not His essence—becoming God is literally what bestows upon us eternal life, undoing the power of sin.
This connects to the preceding because just as God’s Spirit is what enables all human life, an abiding in God likewise enables eternal life.
Hence, the Scriptures teach that we will be deified by God:
But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit (2 Cor 3:18).
His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence. For by these He has granted to us His precious and magnificent promises, so that by them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust. Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence (2 Pet 1:3-5).
We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is. And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure (1 John 3:2-3).
The saints teach that this is “Theosis” or “becoming God:”
Neither, then, immortal nor yet mortal did He make him [Adam], but, as we have said above, capable of both; so that if he should incline to the things of immortality, keeping the commandment of God, he should receive as reward from Him immortality, and should become God; but if, on the other hand, he should turn to the things of death, disobeying God, he should himself be the cause of death to himself. For God made man free, and with power over himself. (2nd century, Theophilus of Antioch, To Autolycus, Book II, Chap 27)
[T]he Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, who did, through His transcendent love, become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself. (2nd century, Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book V, Preface)
God became man so man may become God. (4th century, Athanasius, On the Incarnation, Chap 54)
The saints also teach that we don’t literally become God in His substance/essence (or we would be eternal and be co-creators). Instead, we are divinized by His energy.
Now, the work properly belonging to the Divine energy is the salvation of those who need it; and this salvation proves effectual by means of the cleansing in the water [of baptism]; and he that has been so cleansed will participate in Purity; and true Purity is Deity. (4th century, Gregory of Nyssa, Great Catechism, chap 36)
For just as the Holy Spirit by nature and according to essence exists of God the Father, so too by nature and according to essence is the Spirit of the Son, insofar as the Spirit proceeds essentially from the Father ineffably through the begotten Son, giving its own proper energies, like lamps, to the lampstand—that is, to the Church. For in the manner of a lamp that dissolves the darkness, every energy of the Spirit is of a nature to expel and drive away the manifold manifestation of sin. (7th century, Maximus, Questions of Thalassius, 63.7)
From Maximus we can perceive the connection between life and God’s grace, his energies. God bestows us life by His Spirit via “its own proper energies” without which we die. This same divinizing grace gives us salvation and everlasting life. As we shall see, this has a direct relation to the “faith/works” question.
The conciliar definition:
The Council of Dositheus is Orthodoxy’s key conciliar statement on salvation and it was written in response to Calvinism, which affects its tone:
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 that each of the Faithful may receive what is done through his own body, whether it be good or bad. (Decree 13)
Let’s explain the Decree’s teaching passage by passage:
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.
The term “faith and works” is defined for us to be understood as Gal 5:6—
For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love.
No work of the Law, and I posit any work, avails us other than faith working through love. Two points:
- This faith “avails” us in Jesus Christ. A direct participation in God’s grace (i.e. “God’s energy”) is being discussed. We are being availed because through faith that has love we are being deified. Saint Maximus teaches:
For each person acquires the energy of the Spirit according to the measure of his manifest faith, so that each person is a steward of his own grace. (QT 54.13)
We permit the bestowal of the vivifying grace of God’s energy by the measure of our faith. Or, in layman’s English, faith that has good works connects us “electrically” to God’s energy. This is why dead faith cannot save.
- Faith has to have works. The Scriptures concur:
Now he who keeps His commandments abides in Him, and He in him. And by this we know that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us. (1 John 3:24)
He who says, “I know Him,” and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. (1 John 2:4)
[F]aith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. (James 2:17)
Saint Maximus elucidates the preceding at length:
The first possesses this grace in potential according to faith alone; the second, in addition to faith, realizes on the level of knowledge the active, most divine likeness of the God who is known in the one who knows Him… For the Spirit does not give birth to a disposition of the will without the consent of that will, but to the extent that the will is willing, He transforms and divinizes it. Whoever has shared in this divinization through experience and knowledge is incapable of reverting. (7th century, Maximus, QT 6.2)
Faith that is inactive, he says, possesses the grace of adoption only in potential, insofar as those who possess it does not move in accordance with the commandments. (Maximus, QT 6, Scholia 2)
[T]he kingdom of God is actualized faith, and if the kingdom of God brings about an unmediated union of God and those in His kingdom. (Maximus, QT 33.2)
By “faith” he means the kingdom possessing the divine form and goodness through works. (Maximus, QT 33, Scholia 1)
For whoever practices the commandments reveals the measure of his faith in proportion to his practice, and in proportion to his faith receives the due measure of grace. But whoever does not practice the commandments reveals by his lack of practice the measure of his lack of faith, and in proportion to his faithlessness the privation of grace. (Maximus, QT 54, Scholia 11)
[W]hoever does not keep the commandments is without the divine light, and bears the mere but not real name of faith. (54, Scholia 24)
We may conclude that when Dositheus says we are saved by “faith and works” it means “faith through works.” This is just like how we Orthodox interpret the Filioque, as we believe the Spirit proceeds from the Father alone through the Son—not from the Father and Son.
Dositheus does not contradict Maximus who teaches:
[F]or what could one possibly bring forward that would be equal to faith, as if his faith were due to his own efforts, and not an offering to him from God? (QT 51.7)
[T]he entire salvation of beings solely in the heart of those being saved, a salvation which is secured by faith and a good conscience. For nothing is swifter than faith, and nothing is easier for someone to do than to confess with his mouth the grace of Him in whom he believes. (QT 61.6)
Faith must be real and normatively, unless you have an exceedingly sincere deathbed repentance like the blessed Thief Demas, it has works. This is because faith manifests itself in good works:
For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them. (Eph 2:10)
Let’s discuss the Decree’s next passage:
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.
This passage rejects forensic justification which is, according to R.C. Sproul:
Justification is forensic, which means that it is legal. We are declared just in God’s courtroom because Jesus lived an obedient life and paid the penalty for our sins. We receive this justification by faith alone, because there are no good deeds we can do to earn it. Because justification is wholly by faith, apart from any good works of ours, we are simultaneously just and yet sinners. Sinfulness still resides in us, yet we are cleared in God’s courtroom. (Liogner.com)
Compare this to Rom 5:9 in the KJV which follows the translation from the Greek by Saint Jerome:
[B]eing now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him.
Justification is not some artificial, past pronouncement of justice. We really have God’s justice/righteousness by His grace/energy the moment we believe. You can feel it. It is a present reality made available to us by faith and His blood–the sacramental life of the Church—more on this in a bit.
Justification is not a forensic pronouncement in the Scriptures. Such an interpretation is an eisegesis. Ps 72:13 LXX states:
Verily I have cleansed [lit. “justified”] my heart in vain, and washed my hands in innocency.
As we can see, he did not in the courtroom of his mind pronounce his heart innocent. He literally washed his hands in innocence. The declaration of righteousness pertains to a present and true reality, not an artificial judgement.
So, faith does not “lay hold on the righteousness which is in Christ” as if it were outside of us, specifically because faith bestows on us the literal righteousness of Christ–His energy. After all, we are in Christ. This is why God’s justice is not meted out by flippant “belief” or all would be saved who simply tipped their hat to Christ. We would have “carnal Christians” allegedly living in union with Christ.
Rather, in the words of the Decree:
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.
As stated previously faith accomplishes our “justification through works, with Christ” as these works are not our own, they are the work of the Divine energy of the Holy Spirit and the flesh and blood of Jesus Himself in our veins and body. This is taught explicitly by the Scriptures:
[W]ork out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure. (Phil 2:12-13)
The saints teach this:
“He that works in you both to will and to work….” If you will, in that case He will work in you to will. Be not affrighted, you are not worsted; both the hearty desire and the accomplishment are a gift from Him: for where we have the will, thenceforward He will increase our will. For instance, I desire to do some good work: He has wrought the good work itself, and by means of it He has wrought also the will (4th century, Chrysostom, Comments on Phil 2:13).
Now no man is assisted unless he also himself does something…We run, therefore, whenever we make advance; and our wholeness runs with us in our advance (just as sore is said to run when the wound is in process of a sound and careful treatment), in order that we may be in every respect perfect, without any infirmity of sin whatever — a result which God not only wishes, but even causes and helps us to accomplish. And this God’s grace does, in co-operation with ourselves, through Jesus Christ our Lord, as well by commandments, sacraments, and examples, as by His Holy Spirit also. (5th century, Augustine, On Man’s Perfection in Righteousness, Chap 20)
God justifies us by divinizing (i.e. “energizing”) our thoughts, actions, and lives. We are justified in Christ. The efficacy of good works is that they actually perfect saving faith. To quote Saint James:
Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? (James 2:22)
This is why in Christ through works we are saved by faith. To quote the Decree again, “It is the faith that is in us that justifies.” The qualification that this is “through works with Christ” is eminently obvious and conceded by all. This being the case, a forensic view of justification becomes superfluous.
The Decree ends:
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.
“Works” are not mere “witnesses certifying our calling” because according to Saint James it is “by works faith was made perfect.” This is what the Decree means when it is says “works” are “fruits [of faith] in themselves, through which faith becomes efficacious.” The efficacy of faith which follows the commandments is taught explicitly by Saints John and Maximus.
Further, the Judgement is clearly according to works. So, a saving faith enables us to be judged righteously when:
…all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad. (2 Cor 5:10)
Where do the sacraments fit in? Sacrament in Latin merely means “mystery.” The mystery is how the immaterial energy of God divinizes us through something material.
In Orthodoxy, we view these as part of a sincere faith and not an additional work. In fact, Saint Ambrose (4th century), in recounting the near-death baptism of Saint Satyrus called being saved by the sacrament “faith alone”—
He, before being initiated in the more perfect mysteries…fearing not death but lest he should depart this life without the Mystery, asked of those whom he knew to be initiated the divine Sacrament of the faithful; not that he might gaze on secret things with curious eyes, but to obtain aid for his faith…so [he] cast himself into the sea, not seeking a plank loosened from the framework of the ship, by floating on which he might be rescued, for he sought the means of faith alone. (Death of Satyrus, Book I, par 43)
Orthodox also believe that those cut off from physical sacraments are not cursed by God—we believe they obtain to the grace of the sacrament “by desire” or by “faith.” But clearly, to willfully cut oneself off from the sacraments is a different matter.
Normatively, we have access to the sacraments and if we simply take the Scriptures at their word they 1. Exist and 2. Are salvific. We will focus specifically on baptism, the Eucharist, and confession.
The ordinance: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:19).
The mystery: “[A]ll of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death” (Rom 6:3-4).
- The Lord’s Supper
The ordinance: “He broke it and said, “This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” In the same way He took the cup also after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes” (1 Cor 11:24-26).
The mystery: “So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him” (John 6:53-56).
The ordinance: “Therefore, confess your sins to one another” (James 5:16; specifically to the Elders in James 5:14).
The mystery: “[T]he prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him” (James 5:15).
Also: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9)
In summary, if we simply take the Scriptures at their word, doesn’t:
- Baptism bury us into Christ’s death—so that we die to sins?
- The Eucharist give “life in yourselves?”
- Confession “cleanse us from all unrighteousness?”
How can we not say these sacraments, if taken literally, are salvific parts of our faith?
None of the preceding, to quote Archbishop Michael of NY and NJ (OCA) are “magic” (2017 Paschal Letter). Rather, to remind you of what Saint Maximus said when discussing baptism:
For the Spirit does not give birth to a disposition of the will without the consent of that will, but to the extent that the will is willing, He transforms and divinizes it.
The sacraments’ power pertains to us cooperating with the grace bestowed to us in the sacrament by our faithfulness. This is why saints such as Gregory of Nyssa (Great Catechism, Chap 34) and Cyril of Jerusalem (Catechetical Lecture 17, Chapters 35 and 36) said that those who do not have faith do not receive the Holy Spirit in baptism.
In Orthodoxy, we believe that salvation is an eternal experience of being divinized by God’s energy. So, we actually “become God” as the saints and Scriptures teach because we literally participate in God’s divinity by His energy.
Some Protestant theologians have seriously grappled with this. After studying Athanasius, John Piper combined a belief in divinization with the western view of the beatific vision:
For example, he says, “[The Son] was made man that we might be made God (theopoiëthõmen).”44 Or: “He was not man, and then became God, but He was God, and then became man, and that to deify us.”45 The issue here is whether the word “make God” or “deify” (theopoieõ) means something unbiblical or whether it means what 2 Peter 1:4 means when it says, “that you may become partakers of the divine nature” (hina genësthe theias koinõnoi phuseõs)?… And thus Athanasius raises for me one of the most crucial questions of all: What is the ultimate end of creation—the ultimate goal of God in creation and redemption? Is it being or seeing?… The way I would speak of our future being and seeing is this: By the Spirit of God who dwells in us, our final destiny is not self-admiration or self-exaltation, but being able to see the glory of God without disintegrating, and being able to delight in the glory of Christ with the very delight of God the Father for his own Son (John 17:26),48 and being able to do visible Christ-exalting deeds that flow from this delight. (Contending For Our All, 2005 Bethlehem Conference)
The western view of the beatific vision is the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. At present, it appears to contradict the Biblical and traditional teaching. The CCC states:
Since the Passion and death of our Lord Jesus Christ, these souls have seen and do see the divine essence with an intuitive vision, and even face to face, without the mediation of any creature. (1023)
How great will your glory and happiness be, to be allowed to see God, to be honored with sharing the joy of salvation and eternal light with Christ your Lord and God, . . . to delight in the joy of immortality in the Kingdom of heaven with the righteous and God’s friends. (1028)
Heaven, in Roman Catholicism, is “seeing God.” There is no explicit teaching on us actually participating in God and becoming God because they have no category of thought such as God’s divine energy to ascribe this to. This is why Thomas Aquinas writes:
[B]ecause grace is above human nature, it cannot be a substance or a substantial form, but is an accidental form of the soul. [Note: “an accident is a property which has no necessary connection to the essence of the thing being described.” In other words, it is not God just like the accidents of the Eucharist in Roman Catholic theology are bread and wine, and not Christ’s eternal flesh and blood.] Now what is substantially in God, becomes accidental in the soul participating the Divine goodness, as is clear in the case of knowledge. And thus because the soul participates in the Divine goodness imperfectly, the participation of the Divine goodness, which is grace, has its being in the soul in a less perfect way than the soul subsists in itself…thus grace is said to be created inasmuch as men are created with reference to it, i.e. are given a new being out of nothing (Summa Theologica, First Part of the Second Part, Question 110, Article 2, Objections 2 and 3)
In short, grace according to Aquinas is from God’s substance/essence (he does not understand the Patristic teaching on energy.) Man’s essence cannot become God’s essence, so man cannot experience God’s actual, uncreated grace—i.e. God Himself. Hence, grace is “created” in reference to created man, so that the essence of that grace does not literally turn man into God’s essence. Such a definition, obviously, separates man from God as there is no means where man directly experiences God.
Tragically, this was dogmatized in Session VI, Chapter 7 of the Council of Trent where it states:
Finally the unique formal cause [of justification] is the “justice of God, not that by which He Himself is just, but by which He makes us just,” that, namely, by which, when we are endowed with it by him, we are renewed in the spirit of our mind, and not only are we reputed, but we are truly called and are just, receiving justice within us.
I am not giving my own private interpretation of Trent. The Catholic Encyclopedia states in its article on justification:
According to the Council of Trent sanctifying grace is not merely a formal cause, but “the only [unique] formal cause” (unica causa formalis) of our justification…Since justification consists in an interior sanctity and renovation of spirit, its formal cause evidently must be a created grace (gratia creata), a permanent quality, a supernatural modification or accident (accidens) of the soul.
In Roman Catholic theology, we never actually made just with God’s actual righteousness and therefore never actually experience divinization. I want to point out that this explicitly contradicts 2 Cor 5:21 which states:
He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness [lit. “justice”] of God in Him.
In Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, due to their lack of an energy-essence distinction, we are never truly divinized and by the Biblical and Patristic understanding, never saved.
Sadly, things have not improved since Trent. Because Western theology does not, as of present, have an energy-essence distinction, Western Christians such as Roman Catholics cannot even affirm the understanding of the earliest Western theologians who were more conversant with the Apostolic deposit of faith.
For example, Saint Augustine directly contradicts the CCC by teaching God’s essence can never be seen:
For the nature itself, or substance, or essence, or by whatever other name that very thing, which is God, whatever it be, is to be called, cannot be seen corporeally. (5th century, On the Trinity, Book 2, Chapter 18)
Wherefore the substance, or, if it is better so to say, the essence of God, wherein we understand, in proportion to our measure, in however small a degree, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, since it is in no way changeable, can in no way in its proper self be visible. (5th century, On the Trinity, Book 3, Chap 11)
For He cannot be seen by men through the bodily organ by which men see corporeal things…We shall therefore see Him according to the measure in which we shall be like Him [cf 1 John 3:2-3]; because now the measure in which we do not see Him is according to the measure of our unlikeness to Him. We shall therefore see Him by means of that in which we shall be like Him. (5th century, Letter 92, par 3)
Augustine is affirming the teaching of the Scriptures:
I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of His robe filled the temple. Above it stood seraphim; each one had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. (Is 6:1-2)
No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him. (John 1:18)
Not that anyone has seen the Father, except He who is from God; He has seen the Father. (John 6:46)
He who has seen Me has seen the Father; so how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? (John 14:9)
Who alone has immortality, and dwells in light unapproachable, Whom no man has seen, nor can see. (1 Tim 6:16)
For this reason it should not surprise us that saints other than Augustine are equally emphatic that God’s “nature”/”substance”/”essence” cannot be seen:
For He, the Son who is in His bosom, declares to all the Father who is invisible. (2nd century, Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book III, Chap 11, par 6)
[T]he undimmed vision of the Father is reserved in its purity for the Son with the Holy Ghost. (4th century, Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lecture 7, par 11)
“Dwelling in the light which no man can approach.” … By this expression is represented the Incomprehensibleness of the Divine Nature. Thus he speaks of God, in the best way he is able. Observe, how when the tongue would utter something great, it fails in power…Indeed, no one has seen the Son [in His divine nature,] nor can see Him. (4th century, Chrysostom, Homily 18 on First Timothy)
Jacob took his name from this very thing, being called Israel; for Israel is one that sees God. And others have seen him. How then says John, “No man has seen God at any time?” It is to declare, that all these were instances of (His) condescension, not the vision of the Essence itself unveiled. For had they seen the very Nature, they would not have beheld It under different forms, since that is simple, without form, or parts, or bounding lines. It sits not, nor stands, nor walks: these things belong all to bodies. But how He Is, He only knows…For since His Son was about to appear in very flesh, He prepared them from old time to behold the substance of God, as far as it was possible for them to see It; but what God really is, not only have not the prophets seen, but not even angels nor archangels. (4th century, Chrysostom, Homily 15 on John, Chapter 1)
[E]ven to angels He then became visible, when He put on the Flesh; but before that time they did not so behold Him, because even to them His Essence was invisible…How then, asks some one, did Christ say, ‘Despise not one of these little ones, for I tell you, that their angels do always behold the face of My Father which is in heaven’? Matthew 18:10…He means that intellectual vision which is possible to us, and the having God in the thoughts; so in the case of angels, we must understand that by reason of their pure and sleepless nature they do nothing else, but always image to themselves God. (Chrysostom, Homily 15 on John, Chapter 2)
When the intellect has passed beyond the substance of intelligible realities, it becomes ignorant, for it is drawing near to God who according to essence is beyond both knowledge and intellection. (7th century, Maximus, QT 1, Scholia 4).
God in His essence cannot be the object of human knowledge, so too neither can His word be fully comprehended by us. (Maximus, QT 50, Scholia 1)
The reason the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are invisible is because according to their essence, God cannot be seen. However, being that Christ incarnate has both the energy and essence of the divinity in its entirety, in heaven we look upon Jesus Christ and are divinized by His energy. Therefore, we directly experience divinization—just not according to His essence.
Hence, our entire interaction with God both in vision and experience is with His divine energy. Unlike the Western teaching, Orthodoxy allows for a direct experience with God as Rev 21 describes.
This is why Maximus teaches:
For in the manner of a lamp that dissolves the darkness, every energy of the Spirit is of a nature to expel and drive away the manifold manifestation of sin…The Spirit grants perfection through the most brilliant, simple, and complete wisdom to those who are worthy of divinization, and without any intermediary it completely leads them upward toward the Cause of beings. (QT, 63:8)
Maximus continues, echoing Augustine earlier:
[T]hey know God by knowing themselves, there being no kind of intermediary separating them from God, for between wisdom and God there is no intermediary… in a manner beyond knowledge that is unutterable and inconceivable, they will be led up by grace to that summit which is infinite and for all infinity is infinitely beyond all things an infinite number of times. (Maximus, QT 63.8-9)
- God’s grace is a participation in God Himself (i.e. God’s “energy”)
- The original sin was a turning away from “Life,” (John 14:6) who is God, leading to death.
- Salvation is becoming God according to His energy, not His essence—becoming God is literally what bestows upon us eternal life, undoing the power of sin. This is why a correct understanding of original sin is relevant.
- The saints teach that we don’t literally become God in His substance (or we would be eternal), but instead we are divinized by His energy.
- Justification is by “faith…through works” as Decree 13 of Dositheus states, because this is what real faith is. Real faith justifies us because it literally divinizes us, not merely making us “like Christ” on paper. We literally “become the righteousness/justice of God in Him” as 2 Cor 5:21 states.
- The sacraments are part of this faith and thereby are means of justifying grace in accordance with the cooperation of our will. In other words, our justification is as deep as our faith, as faith is a corollary of our will.
- Salvation itself, attained by God’s grace, through faith that works through love, is an eternal experience of God’s grace making us God. Salvation is not a mere vision of God.
- This is important because it explains why we are 1. Eternal, 2. Will never fall again, and 3. How we can eternally delight in God, because without mediation we will experience His goodness in ourselves. Other views implicitly allow for man to fall again (because man’s will is not deified) and the existence of, as RC theology calls it, “created grace”—undercutting the limitless delight one experiences by actually being God by His energy.
Salvation is totally by grace, because being created and fallen in sin, we can only be corrected by God’s divinization. The grace is not ours, it is God’s. The faith is not ours, it is God’s. The sanctification through works is not ours, it is God’s according to His energies. We are merely cooperating with what God is doing through us. This is why a faith without repentance cannot save, as without the cooperation of the will with God’s grace the faith itself is inactive and not salvific.
And so, I invite everyone watching this today to reflect on this, repent, and draw ever closer to God through a deepening faith which manifests itself in increasing love. To God alone be the glory. Amen.
Help Grow the Orthodox Church in Cambodia!
Has this article blessed you? Please bless the Moscow Patriarchate’s missionary efforts in Cambodia to bring the Gospel to a people who have not heard it!