Hope, Fear, and the Works of Faith: Sermon for the 5th Sunday after Pentecost (2019)

Hope, Fear, and the Works of Faith: Sermon for the 5th Sunday after Pentecost (2019) - Holy Cross Monastery

In today’s epistle, we hear the Apostle Paul establishing the basis of a Christian’s salvation: “That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved” (Rom. 10.9). The opposite is that if you do not confess the Lord Jesus, or if you do not believe in your heart, you are not a Christian, you will not be saved. However, is salvation so simple, effortless, and undemanding as this would sound? Does the Apostle mean to imply that there is no gradation of belief or allowance for doubt or periods of disbelief or struggle so that one can say with the father of the demon-possessed son, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief.” (Mark 9:24)? Is the Apostle Paul implying that confessing and believing are all that is needed to be a Christian? Or is he directing his statement that “let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10.12) to those who believe Christianity to be so simplistic?

The Apostle Paul, in his Epistle to the Romans, makes plain that there is only one righteousness which comes from God and that it is obtained by grace through faith and not by the works of the Law. Beginning in chapter ten, he states that Christ is the end of the Law. Christ did what the Law was unable to do because no one did or was able to, fulfill it, and therefore, it was incapable to make man righteous (vs. 4). The Apostle then explains how this righteousness is obtained, saying, if you confess with your mouth, the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved (vs. 9-10).

Earlier, the Apostle Paul, referring to our forefather Abraham, described his faith noting that Abraham hoped when no hope was to be found (Rom. 4.18), that he was not weak in faith but believed that God could do what He promised (vs. 19) and that he did not waver in unbelief (vs. 20) but was convinced that God was able to perform that which He said. The Apostle’s lengthy explanation throughout the Epistle to the Romans on this aspect is that it is faith which brings salvation, and not the fulfillment of the Law, but it is a faith which has definite characteristics and cannot be considered effortless, and base.

St. John Chrysostom, referring to this passage, says that one is not to think that such a faith is so contemptible for being so easy and cheap (Hom. XVII) because of the strength of soul which one needs to believe and to confess. For often, much confusion and havoc arise within those who do believe and confess. For, he says, it takes a “soul of some vigor,” a wise mind, a “heaven-reaching” spirit, to shake [the confusing thoughts] off thoroughly (ibid.).

The Apostle Peter denied Christ three times and yet still received the reward of the Kingdom. Three men received talents (or a portion of the Holy Spirit, if you will) – one had five, the other two and the last one, and yet one still perished. Therefore, because you deny Christ does not mean that you cannot be saved and just because you affirm Christ and are given a measure of the Holy Spirit does not mean that you will obtain the Kingdom. Why? because the Christian has a choice, a choice to repent, to beg forgiveness and to plead with God. For it is only through a faith which yields repentance and humility that will one acquire the Kingdom and the salvation of one’s soul. Ultimately, it is a faith which is never alone.

For those of us who are weak, who sin continuously in word and deed, who have buried our one talent, have betrayed our first love, have hardened our hearts in disobedience, who pray, “I fear O Lord, thy judgment and the endless torment, yet I cease not to do evil,” to us St. Peter Damascene says, “Do not despair.”

Even if you are not what you should be, he writes, you should not despair. It is bad enough that you have sinned; why in addition do you wrong God by regarding Him in your ignorance as powerless? Is He, who for your sake created the great universe that you behold, incapable of saving your soul? And if you say that this fact, as well as His incarnation, only makes your condemnation worse, then repent; and He will receive your repentance, as He accepted that of the prodigal son and the prostitute. But if repentance is too much for you, and you sin out of habit even when you do not want to, show humility like the publican: this is enough to ensure your salvation. (That We Should Not Despair Even If We Sin Many Times)

Many will say that the commandments of Christ are essential, but that they do not relate to one’s salvation. That the beatitudes and rules which Christ has prescribed are well and good and should be obeyed but obedience to them does not affect one’s standing before God because it is enough to have faith; to believe in my heart and confess with my mouth.

In so doing, they neglect the commandment of the Lord who said, “If you love me keep my commandments,” (John 14.15). It is not a Patriarch, or Prophet or an Apostle who says this to us but is from the mouth of our Lord and Savior: “He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me: and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him”vs. 21; “If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love” 15:10)

Interpreting the writings of the Apostle Paul, the Apostle James describes what a Christian’s faith looks like. He writes: “What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can [that] faith save him?”(2.14). The only time which the Apostle James speaks about faith being alone he says, “faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone” (vs. 17). To illustrate his point, he says, what do you do when a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food? (vs. 15). Of course, this recalls those supposed disciples of Christ to whom he declared that when He was thirsty, hungry, and naked they did not supply his need and therefore Christ pronounced, “Depart from me ye cursed, into everlasting fire” (Matt. 25.41). It was not because of their lack of faith but their lack of work, as James said, a work which shows forth faith. And further, he writes, was not Abraham justified by his works when he offered up Isaac upon the altar (Jam. 2.21)? It is because, as he says, works make faith perfect.

The Venerable Bede, commenting on this passage, writes: “James uses the example of Abraham… to show that the patriarch also performed good works in the light of his faith. It is, therefore, wrong to interpret Paul in such a way as to suggest that it did not matter whether Abraham put his faith into practice or not.” (Concerning the Epistle of St. James)

For St. Augustine, the Christian works but accomplishes the works of faith, not the works of the Law. He writes: “Paul said that a man is justified through faith without the works of the law, but not without those works of which James speaks” (On the Christian Life, 13).

Faith and the works which perfect it are not in opposition; they do not disagree or supplant each other but are held in unity, in agreement, in harmony even if it is difficult to understand. St. John Cassian, noting how it is difficult for human reason to discern these things, parallels the paradox of God’s activity and man’s activity and advocates the need for holding both in balance at all times. He writes:

What, moreover, does it mean that God “renders to each one according to his works”? And: “It is God who works in you both to will and to accomplish, for the sake of His good pleasure”? And what do these words mean: “Draw near to the Lord, and he will draw near to you”? And what is said elsewhere: “No one comes to me unless the Father who sent me draws him”? (Thirteenth Conference: On God’s Protection, IX.2.)

St. John concludes the matter, writing: “These two things – that is, the grace of God and free will – certainly seem mutually opposed to one another, but both are in accord, and we understand that we must accept both in like manner by reason of our religion, lest by removing one of them from the human being we seem to contravene the rule of the Church’s faith (ibid. XI.4.).

Perhaps some may recall that the Apostle Paul had earlier wrote in chapter nine that some of the vessels in the house of God are made for wrath and some are made for mercy (vs. 22-23). Some people erroneously believe that God has predestined some for this wrath and they, therefore, minimize the need for the works of a Christian supposing one’s total powerlessness towards the things of God.

The Apostle, in writing to Timothy, does not say that if one is a vessel of wrath he will always be a vessel of wrath. Instead, he says, “If a man, therefore, purge himself from [sin], he shall be a vessel unto honor, sanctified, and meet for the master’s use, and prepared unto every good work” (2 Tim. 2.20-21). Though one might have been a vessel of wrath, he writes, you can change your ways by coming to Christ, who will give you rest for your weary soul. Your being a vessel of wrath does not have to be permanent, nor does Christ want it to be, but instead, He desires that you turn from your ways and find life in Christ.

Though you are dead in transgressions and sins, you need to arise. To those who say that the dead cannot raise themselves, the Apostle Paul, writing to the Ephesians, says, “Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light” (Eph. 5.14).


The Dread Judgment

What is more, although it is God who enables us to do good, our choice to carry that out lies on our shoulders for how else could we be accused of not doing so? How could God find fault with us if we are not free to choose Him? Instead, we will all stand before the dread judgment seat of Christ, and we are judged not by our faith, but again, as the Apostle says earlier in his epistle to the Romans, “[God] will render to every man according to his [faith, no!, his] deeds: To them who by patient continuance in well-doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, eternal life: But unto them that are contentious, and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, indignation and wrath, Tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that doeth evil, of the Jew first, and also of the Gentile; But glory, honour, and peace, to every man that worketh good, to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile: For there is no respect of persons with God” (vs. 6-11). Moreover, to the Corinthians, he writes that each man will be judged not as to whether or not he has something called faith but “according to what he has done, whether good or bad” (2 Cor. 5.10).

With these examples, the obscure is made evident: the Christian life is more than a simple, effortless faith. Instead, For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you. Unless you eat the Lord’s body and drink His blood, you have no place with Him. If you do not endure until the end, you will not be saved.

So what is faith? It is the gift of God, lest any man boast. And works? When we have done our best, all we have is but filthy rags. However, these filthy rags are required of everyone who calls themselves a Christian because they are one of the means, one of the ways, through which God responds to us. He works in our lives in ways and for reasons we do not understand but also in ways that we can understand, i.e. “For if ye forgive men their trespasses, you know that your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt. 6:14-15); “if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us of all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). However, and what is more, to those who not only have faith in Christ but a “heaven-reaching soul” and confess Christ before men, to them Christ says, “him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven.” (Matt. 10:32). Behold the easy yoke and the light burden of Christ.

Through the prayers of our Holy Fathers, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us. Amen.

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