God is not a monster; He is not a tyrant; He is not unjust. Instead, He is a father; He is a mother; He deals mercifully with His creation, and acts with love towards us who are created in His image. This is the picture that the Apostle Paul paints in today’s Epistle reading; that God is not abusive, nor does he exact justice upon us, but instead He conducts Himself with compassion and mercy.
In the Epistle reading for today, the Apostle Paul offers us a brief explanation of how God operates with the intent of restoring us to that friendship and union with Him which was ruptured at the Fall of Adam and Eve and which has been individually re-enacted in each of our lives in regards to our relationship with Him.
In the Apostle’s depiction of God, he does not write and say simply that God is merciful and that God is love. Instead, he labors to emphasize the way that God is towards us. He says that God is “rich in mercy” and not that God loves us but has “great love” for us (vs. 4). Although the description seems very full, very poetic, and embellished, it is not for added emphasis but is a fitting portrayal of who God is and how He acts.
Previously, in contrasting the love that God has for men with how men relate to each other, Paul stated that for a righteous man someone might be willing to die (Rom. 5.7). However, God is not like this. There is no hesitation on His part. For God, who is rich in mercy, in His great love, the Apostle writes, raises us up together with Christ to sit alongside Him and to be the recipients of the exceeding riches of His grace (vs. 6-7).
We were not raised up when we were God’s friends. No, He came to us, when we were dead in sins, the Apostle writes (vs. 5).
Furthermore, for us to understand the deadness in which we dwelt, the Apostle adds that our quickening unto life is by grace, that is, we are saved by grace through faith, he writes (vs. 8-9).
Moreover, in case we do not understand what this means, he expounds further, noting that this grace and this faith do not come from ourselves but are gifts, gifts as a result of his rich mercy and great love. They are not the result of our efforts, and not a reward or compensation for a life well lived but a gift, freely given. There is no person, no matter how virtuous or vice-filled they are that can say that the grace or faith bestowed upon them by God is a reward for something they have done. Instead, they are ever only gifts, and therefore no one can boast before another man, nor before God.
With this understanding, the Apostle brings us to the last verse of today’s reading wherein he writes that we are God’s workmanship. The new creation that we are is His, a creation in Christ Jesus, and not a new creation of our own devising. The Apostle concludes this section by answering the question: “why?” Why did God do this? He answers: so that we would do good works (vs. 10).
Therefore, in the passage of Scripture today, the Apostle Paul emphasizes God’s goodness towards us who were at one time spiritually dead toward Him. God bestows upon us the undeserved and unearned gifts of His grace, and gives us faith in order that we perform “good works.”
Grace is not Earned
We should pay special attention to the fact that grace and faith are from God and therefore we have nothing about which to boast. We do not earn them, for earnings are the dues of a hired servant. Actually, the Lord even speaks to this point in another place, saying, “when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do” (Luke 17.10), and therefore, if it is our duty, why we would expect a reward or something above and beyond the usual?
But God, who is rich in mercy, in His great love, grants us grace, and, as St. Mark the Ascetic says, it begins with an initial grace that arouses the conscience of sinners in a divine manner.[i] Further, he writes, there is also a grace that is given mystically in Baptism and “it becomes active within an individual to the extent that they actively observe the commandments.” He continues, “Grace never ceases to help us secretly; but to do good – as far as lies in our power – depends on us.”[ii] It is this “doing of good,” which as servants, is an obligation to be performed, that is why St. Mark notes, “A slave does not demand his freedom as a reward; but he gives satisfaction as one who is in debt, and he receives freedom as a gift.” Such is his interpretation of Christ’s parable of the talents, for those who served the master well are given freedom as a gift, therefore Christ says, “Well done, good and faithful servant, you have been faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things: enter into the joy of your Lord (cf. Matt. 25.21).[iii]
We are asked only to do what we were created to do. Therefore, when we fulfill this duty, there is nothing about which to boast. Yet, even when we betray the purpose of our life and behave and live unnaturally, God comes down to rouse us up and bring us to our senses.
Good Works Strengthen Faith
The Apostle Paul writes that God requires of us good works, that is, those activities that animate the grace of God we have been given and establish and fortify faith in our lives. If we do not desire to perform good works, seeing no need for them, or lacking the zeal to do so, we will find grace inanimate in our life and our faith weakening. To perform the good works of the Christian life enlivens the grace and faith that are active in us and reveals to us that we are the servants and children of God.
As Adam and Eve lost Paradise through their disobedience, so can we forfeit the grace given us and be barred from the Kingdom of Heaven. As the servant who did not increase his talent but buried it, the talent being an image of the grace of God, so we, in not growing and developing spiritually through the grace that is given us, can be cast into the outer darkness. As the unwise virgins, who lacked discernment, and had no extra oil from which to fill their lamps which were going to go out, were locked out of the bridal chamber, so we, if we do not have a store of good works, being the fruit of the spirit, will find ourselves in want on that fateful day, and locked outside of the heavenly gates.
God does not work without us, nor does not violate our will, for both are needed. On this very topic, St. John Chrysostom writes using the Apostle Peter and Judas as examples, saying:
Hence we learn a great doctrine, that a man’s willingness is not sufficient, unless he receive the succor from above; and that again we shall gain nothing by the succor from above, if there be not a willingness. And both these things do Judas and Peter show; for the one (Judas), though he had received much help, was profited nothing, because he was not willing, neither contributed his part; but this one (Peter), though he was ready in mind, because he received no assistance, fell. For indeed of these two things is virtue’s web woven.[iv]
What is more, not only is Divine succor and man’s will and desire, needed, but both continue to work together throughout the Christian life. It is not something that is found only at the beginning because grace continues to work within us, and we are continually being asked to increase our faith to struggle harder and to push ourselves. This is how we grow spiritually. St. Maximus the Confessor explains it in this manner. He writes,
Divine blessings are bestowed according to the measure of faith in each man. Similarly, the strength of our faith is revealed by the zeal with which we act. Thus our actions disclose the measure of our faith, and the strength of our faith determines the measure of grace that we receive. Conversely, the extent to which we fail to act reveals the measure of our lack of faith, and our lack of faith, in turn, determines the degree to which we are deprived of grace. Hence the person who out of jealousy envies those who practice the virtues is more than misguided, for the choice of believing and acting, and of receiving grace according to the measure of his faith, clearly depends on him and not on anybody else.[v]
On Living for Christ
And what is this grace apart from a measure of the Holy Spirit. When we fail to live as Christians, failing to struggle to live the ascetical life, being deficient in good works, then the Holy Spirit is grieved, is quenched, and withdraws from us. The good works of the Christian life, the ascesis in which we struggle is not the purpose of our lives, yet it is imperative for reaching the goal. The goal is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit from which, the fruits of this Spirit blossom in the Christian’s life. Only the works done for Christ’s sake will enable us to attain this goal. St. Seraphim of Sarov, in his renowned conversation with the pious layman Nicholas Motovilov, explains it this way:
Prayer, fasting, watchfulness and all other Christian acts, however good they may be, do not alone constitute the aim of our Christian life, although they serve as the indispensable means of reaching this aim. The true aim of our Christian life is to acquire the Holy Spirit of God. But mark, my son, only the good deed done for Christ’s sake brings us the fruit of the Holy Spirit. All that is not done for His sake, though it be good, brings neither reward in the life to come nor the grace of God in our life here. Wherefore our Lord Jesus Christ has said: ‘He who gathers not scatters abroad.[vi]
God, who is rich in mercy, in His great love, has prepared a kingdom for us, from the foundation of the world. He desires our salvation, but “Beware of these two thoughts, and fear them,” writes St. Silouan the Athonite. “The first suggests, ‘You are a saint;’ the other, ‘You will not be saved.’ Both come from the enemy and there is no truth in them. Instead think to yourself, ‘I am a great sinner but the Lord is merciful. He loves man with a great love, and will forgive me my sins.’”[vii]
“If misfortunes overcome you,” continues St. Silouan, “do not lose heart but recollect that the Lord in mercy looketh upon you, and do not allow yourself to think, ‘Is the Lord going to look upon me when I grieve Him?’, for mercy is the nature of the Lord. Instead, turn to God in faith, and like the prodigal son say, ‘I am no more worthy to be called thy son,’ and you will see how pleasing you will be to the Father, and your soul will be filled with indescribable joy.”[viii]
THROUGH THE PRAYERS OF OUR HOLY FATHERS,
LORD JESUS CHRIST OUR GOD, HAVE MERCY ON US. AMEN.
[i] On Those Who Think They are Made Righteous by Works, text #62.
[ii] Ibid., #61.
[iii] Ibid., #3-4.
[iv] St. John Chrysostom, Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, Homily 82, 4.
[v] St. Maximos the Confessor, Third Century of Various Texts, #35.
[vii] Archimandrite Sophrony, Saint Silouan the Athonite. (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1991), 440.
[viii] Ibid., 425.