Orthodoxy is often stereotyped as needlessly vague on the issue of justification. Some respectable thinkers, such as the late Protestant theologian R.C. Sproul, thought that the issue of justification was unsettled within the Orthodox communion. The existence of such confusion is unnecessary, because the Church has twice addressed the issue in a Pan-Orthodox matter. Additionally, the saints have written on the issue extensively.

It is instructive for us to survey what the Church’s conciliar teaching on this issue is as well as the teachings of the fathers. What we will find is that their teachings are hardly esoteric and in fact represent the Biblical teaching of justification in a holistic matter.

As an important perquisite for this article, it is recommended that you read “The Orthodox Doctrine of Justification: The Biblical Teaching” beforehand.

The Council of Jassy

In 1643, the Bishops of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem signed onto the Council of Jassy and The Orthodox Confession of the Catholic and Apostolic Eastern Church by Saint Peter Mogila. They affirmed the Greek version of the text and made some edits “purging it from all foreign defilements and novelties.” (p. 8) In other words, they removed certain iterations from Peter Mogila that betrayed the influence of Latin theology, particularly his treatment of Purgatory and the consecration of the Eucharist. For our purposes here, the conciliar-approved version of the Confession taught that in order to “have eternal life” it is necessary to have both “right faith and good works.” (p. 12) The document states that “if good works accompany our faith, we shall be crowned with everlasting heaven.” (p. 13)

The preceding teaching, though completely Orthodox and edifying, is insufficient for addressing the question of justification as posed by Protestant interlocutors. As we can see in the preceding, the literal term “justification” is not actually discussed and so the Protestant doctrine of Forensic Justification, as covered in the first part, is not adequately addressed. This is important, because Protestant theology likewise affirms the necessity of good works for salvation. For example, John Calvin wrote, “It is therefore faith alone which justifies, and yet the faith which justifies is not alone.” (Antidote to the Council of Trent, Canon 11) Similar statements can be found in the writings of other reformers.

In layman’s English, the Protestant teaching is that faith justifies a man onto salvation. Salvation is viewed strictly as a gift for being judged as righteous by virtue of having faith in Christ. Hence, the Protestant believes that if one were to look at the issue chronologically, salvation has the following pattern: One is not saved, then one has faith which justifies an individual, and after that point-in-time one is sanctified after that specific incidence of justification. Indeed, it is believed that sanctification occurs after justification and does the work of in some sense improving the Christian’s salvation after he was justified.

The role works play, in such a system, is twofold. First, works are necessary for vouchsafing the authenticity of saving faith, as John Calvin noted. Second, they increase the heavenly reward which all people who are justified have to some degree. As the Scriptures teach:

For we must 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)

The preceding Protestant soteriology has lasted centuries and attracted hundreds of millions of adherents because it has a cogent internal logic.

The Council of Jerusalem

The Church’s response to Protestant soteriology (i.e. the study of salvation) was clarified during the Council of Jerusalem (1672). The council went into more detail as to how justification works and is more instructive for our purposes.

Decree 13 states very plainly that:

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.

Protestants may balk at the statement that one is justified by “faith and works,” but they should not. The council is defining “faith and works” as a reaffirmation of Gal 5:6:

For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love.

Nevertheless, the terminology of “faith and works” is “politically incorrect” terminology for Protestant theologians. For example, in the late 1500s the Lutheran theologians of Tubingen, having sent the Ausburg Confession to Patriarch Jeremiah II of Constantinople, asserted that the terminology “faith alone” is not only Biblical, but also had a patristic basis. It quoted “Saint Ambrose” allegedly saying:

This is ordained of God, that he that believeth in Christ shall be saved, without works, by faith alone, freely receiving remission of sins. (Article VI)

The preceding quote is actually from an unknown writer coined “Ambrosiaster” by Erasmus of Rotterdam. Saint Augustine, as well as Irish manuscripts of Amborisaster, seemed to indicate the author is Saint Hilary of Poitiers. Nevertheless, it still poses standard Orthodox apologetics a “problem.” What are we to make of fourth century attestation to a “Protestant” idea? Further, why do other saints over the years such as Mark the Ascetic, Maximus the Confessor, and others make similar statements? In fact, even after the Protestant Reformation we still have saintly men teaching similar things. Though not canonized, new-martyr Daniel Sysoev wrote the following about 15 years ago:

Faith in the Trinity and the redeeming sacrifice of Jesus Christ the God-Man is the sole means of our justification. (Salvation Comes Not By Good Works Alone, p. 5)

What is the Orthodox way of understanding teachings like the preceding? Understanding the rest of Decree 13, in light of the teachings of the Scriptures and saints, is important. The decree, after teaching Christians are saved by “faith and works,” further clarifies matters:

[W]e rather believe that it [a work] is not the correlative of faith, but the faith which is in us, justifies through works, with Christ.

This simple sentence is packed with incredible meaning. In response to the Protestant teaching that a Christian is justified by “faith alone” and that good works are merely proof of authentic faith, the council asserts that this is incorrect. In fact, “the faith which is in us, justifies through works, with Christ.” In other words, faith does indeed justify but it is through works that faith is efficacious.

The Council’s Teachings Found in The Epistle of Saint James and Saint Maximus the Confessor

The Scriptures plainly teach that faith “justifies…through works with Christ.” For example, Saint James observed that Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac demonstrated that:

Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? (James 2:22)

As we can see, faith is perfected by works, or in the words of the council, “justifies through works.” This is why “faith without works is dead.” (James 2:17)

Saint Maximus the Confessor fleshes this out in more detail. Consistent with the Biblical teaching, he teaches in Questions of Thalassius:

[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)

As we can see, dead faith that “does not keep the commandments” is “not real…faith.” Why? Maximus explains in the following passages how this works by differentiating between when one is potentially justified (called “faith alone” and “the grace of adoption only in potential”) and justification via cooperation with the grace of God via good works (“in accordance with the commandments”).

Take note that “he” in the following quotations is a Biblical prophet or Apostle that Maximus is exegeting:

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. (6, Scholia 2)

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. (6.2)

As we can see, God actually “divinizes” the Christian in proportion to the cooperation of one’s will with the grace of God. What Maximus is speaking of is that faithful Christians are “beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, [and] are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory.” (2 Cor 3:18) They are being made increasingly like Christ by grace. Orthodox call this concept “Theosis” and believe that Theosis is what Christians’ experience of salvation actually is.

The aforementioned grace “transforms and divinizes” Christians in proportion to their “manifest” faith. Maximus succinctly states:

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. (54.13)

Anticipating the wording of the Council of Jerusalem by more than 1,000 years, Maximus asserts that Biblically faith must be understood as something that manifests itself “through works”:

By “faith” he means the kingdom possessing the divine form and goodness through works. (33, Scholia 1) 

The Teachings of Saints Gregory of Nyssa and Cyril of Jerusalem

For the vast preponderance of Christians throughout history, the majority were baptized in the faith as infants. Hence, any “saving faith” they had was borne out over time. For many a Christian there was no one “moment” when they believed in Christ and “were saved.” Rather, they have known Christ in varying degrees their entire lives.

The New Testament is mostly silent about this simply because it was composed when the Christian religion was new and growing mainly through conversions. Granted, households were baptized (Acts 11:14, 16:15, 16:31, and 18:8) and the children of believers are “holy.” (1 Cor 7:14) Nevertheless, the Scriptures never in detail answer exactly how these children are saved.

Orthodox reflexively know the answer: through baptism. After all, the Scriptures teach:

  • Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. (John 3:5)
  • Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 2:38)
  • There is also an antitype which now saves us—baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. (1 Pet 3:21)

However, what Orthodox do not consciously think about is that they are reading the preceding Scriptures informed by the Church’s Tradition. To the Protestant, they are not explicit enough to lay out that each child is saved at the moment of baptism. Furthermore, many Orthodox may not be aware precisely how baptism is efficacious. This is where the teachings of Saints Gregory of Nyssa and Cyril of Jerusalem on this topic come in handy.

In the Great Catechism, Saint Gregory of Nyssa teaches that the waters of baptism only become efficacious through faith:

For that change in our life which takes place through regeneration will not be change, if we continue in the state in which we were…But if, when the bath has been applied to the body, the soul has not cleansed itself from the stains of its passions and affections, but the life after initiation keeps on a level with the uninitiate life, then, though it may be a bold thing to say, yet I will say it and will not shrink; in these cases the water is but water, for the gift of the Holy Ghost in no ways appears in him who is thus baptismally born. (Chapter 39)

In his 17th Catechetical Lecture, Saint Cyril of Jerusalem is just as frank as Gregory:

[I]f you play the hypocrite, though men baptize you now, the Holy Spirit will not baptize you. But if you approach with faith, though men minister in what is seen, the Holy Ghost bestows that which is unseen…If you believe, you shall not only receive remission of sins, but also do things which pass man’s power…He will give you gifts of grace of every kind, if you grieve Him not by sin; for it is written, “And grieve not the Holy Spirit of God, whereby you were sealed unto the day of redemption.” [Eph 4:30] (Catechetical Lecture 17, Par 36 and 37).

While the teaching of both of these saints applies explicitly to the baptism of adults, what they make clear for us is that we are in effect, as Maximus taught, “stewards” of our own grace. Our “manifest faith” is what gives the baptism salvific power. So, for children baptized in the faith, their baptism is efficacious and saves them from sin as long as they maintain the meek trustfulness of a child into adulthood. This is why we, as adults, struggle through contrition and good works to adopt the mindset that came so naturally to us as children.

From the preceding, we can make full sense of the above baptismal Scriptures. We can “be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins” (Acts 2:38) provided we “repent.” Repentance is necessary, because without the cooperation of the will with that baptism, sins are not remitted:

For if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins. (Heb 10:26)

This is why Saint Peter earlier said that baptism “now saves us” but it is “not the removal of the filth of the flesh but the answer of a good conscience toward God.” The response of our will with baptismal grace is necessary for that grace to be efficacious. But, this answer of the conscience is also by the grace of God for it is “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

Conclusion

The teaching of the saints on baptism and efficacious faith has been recently summed up by Archbishop Michael of New York and New Jersey (OCA):

Baptism is not an act of magic. The great mystery which the Holy Spirit accomplishes in Baptism becomes part of one’s consciousness only through “synergy” – literally, working together with God – on the part of the baptized person. In order for the baptized individual to truly attain the image of Christ, to really become a Christian, a whole lifetime in the Church is needed. During this lifetime of faith, the action of Christ and the Holy Spirit in cooperation with the baptized person can gradually penetrate into all the nooks and crannies of the Christian believer’s heart and soul, body and spirit. (Paschal Letter, 2017)

The Orthodox teaching on justification is consistent with the Biblical sacraments. It simply and elegantly explains how baptism and belief can forgive sins. It also explains where works fit in—they are simply the cooperation of our will with the grace that comes through faith.

In our last and final article, we will explain exactly how justification saves Christians. From this, we will be able to situate where the points of divergences are in varying Christian traditions and evaluate the merits of Orthodox theology on this important matter.