January 21, 2021

Fr. Ernesto Obregon: An Orthodox View of the Issues In Sola Fide

UPDATE: A great way to learn more about Orthodoxy is the amazing selection of podcasts at Ancient Faith Radio. There are 4 pages of podcasts! I have always enjoyed Fr. Reardon. Perhaps some commenters can share their favorite.

One of the frequent commenters here at Internet Monk recently is Father Ernesto Obregon, an Orthodox priest. Fr. Ernesto is a thoughtful, gracious conversation partner. He sent me this letter clarifying the Orthodox view of the doctrine of justification, the place of works and assurance. You’ll find it fascinating.

His current post series is on the same subject.

Fr. Ernesto’s excellent blog is “OrthoCuban.” Be sure and read his fascinating spiritual journey. Add his blog to your RSS feed and blogroll.

Hey Michael,

I have been enjoying the discussion on Sola Fide immensely. It has been very exciting to be able to review theology on this subject, particularly since it has to do with my personal future someday! I had thought of posting again, but my post would have had to be too long. So, let me sketch out very briefly a couple of thoughts that would need lots of filling in.

1. Eastern theology is much less based on a forensic approach to the atonement. We still tend to concentrate much more on the Christus Victor approach toward the atonement as our primary model of understanding. Because we do, works do not play as much of a part in the argument over atonement as they do in the post-Augustinian West.

2. Some of the problem is of definition, and, if I can control the definition, I can win the debate. For the Protestant West, no work is pure, therefore no work is acceptable, by definition. Philosophical arguments are made about intentions, unexpected results, etc., to prove that none of our works is perfect. That is coupled with the Romans verse on “filthy rags.” However, as even Luther points out, the place of works before and after salvation is different. There is quite a bit of merit to the quotation from Luther about the difference between a dead faith and a living faith.

3. The Orthodox would not say with the Roman Catholics that we are working out our justification.

Here is a quote from St. Philaret’s catechism:

Question 1. What must the orthodox-catholic Christian do to gain eternal life?

Response. Right faith and good works. For whoever has these two is a good Christian and has certain hope of eternal salvation, as Scripture says: “You see that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.” A little later in the same place: “For even as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.” Elsewhere St. Paul says the same thing: “Having faith and a good conscience, which some rejecting have made shipwreck concerning the faith.” The same thing in another place: “Holding the mystery of faith in a pure conscience. ”

Q. 2. Should a Christian first believe and then do good works in life

R. Since “without faith it is impossible to please God”, as St. Paul teaches, “he that comes to God must believe that he is, and is a rewarder to them that seek him.” Therefore, so that a Christian may please God and his works may be accepted by him, first it is necessary that he have faith in God and then he must form his life according to this faith.

Notice a most important sentence that separates us from both Romans and Protestants, “Therefore, so that a Christian may please God and his works may be accepted by him, first it is necessary that he have faith in God and then he must form his life according to this faith.” Like Protestants, the statement says that faith is necessary first. Salvation is by grace through faith, not by works, Romans miss this point. St. James’ phrase on justification by works is not equated to forensic justification but to a twofold of faith and conscience. But, we are then called to form our life. If we fail to do this, then we do make a shipwreck concerning the faith. We would tend to say that Protestants miss the second part. By defining all works as intrinsically impure they make a tautology that blocks out a correct balance. Our approach is medicinal. Works are the medicine for our soul, which begins to form us and heal us of our sin in a practical way. Works are not forensic, but medicinal. That is a very major difference. But, there is a warning to those who fail to take their medicine that their disease may ravage them to the point of great loss, like he who had only one talent and would not even invest it.

4. It is a particularly modern idea that unless works are spontaneous, they are not true. That has more to do with existentialism than with the Bible. Yet a person who plans, who does works with the intent of growing towards union with Christ (ahem, not forensic union, as in justification, practical union, as in sanctification), is not that person more like the athlete which St. Paul cites approvingly, who beats not the air without purpose? When I think of all the Christian volunteers who go to nursing homes, homeless shelters, thrift shops, etc., even when they do not wish to go, even when they are tired, must I tell them that because their attitude is not correct that their works mean nothing? When a Mother Theresa emotionally feels that God is no longer present, but lays that aside and perseveres in Christian commitment, does her work mean nothing? And, if any of those people has the slightest thought in their mind that by doing these actions they will grow in God, must I then tell them that their thought is selfish, their work is impure, and that it means nothing? No, I would rather tell them to plan to grow, to aggressively schedule their spiritual exercise in the thrift shop, the nursing home, etc., so that in serving others, as a deliberate decision of the will, they may learn to mortify their flesh which would rather sit at home.

5. I cited the parable of the talents in point 3. Part of Jesus’ point was to use what you have and to not compare yourself to others. Our walk towards union with God is one that we must take. There is a path which leads to eternal life. But, not everyone has the same resources or opportunities. We are only asked to use what we have, not what others have. And, if you follow the parable, the one talent guy only had to give it to a bank for investment. He did not even have to do great things with the talent. Our salvation is not dependent on doing great things. Great things have been done for us and to us. Nevertheless, making no use of our talent is a sure path to the loss of our salvation.

6. I find the arguments over how little one has to believe or do to be saved a little frightening. The Early Church Fathers always pointed us towards doing more, not less. Inevitably, the discussion over how little has tended to lead to a minimalist Christianity rather than a Living Way. It is here that St. James is ever so handy, as well as St. Paul’s appeal to a good and pure conscience.

I hope I have pointed out some of the differences between East and West a little better.

Fr. Ernesto


  1. Excellent thoughts.

    “By defining all works as intrinsically impure they make a tautology that blocks out a correct balance. Our approach is medicinal. Works are the medicine for our soul, which begins to form us and heal us of our sin in a practical way. Works are not forensic, but medicinal.”

    I like talk about balance. It appears to me that a lack of balance is the problem with our Protestant, Evangelical, Pentecostal (my case) mindset.

    In the Sola Fide post comments, Ephesians 2:8-9 was mentioned. “What about Ephesians 2:8-9? It seems to really clearly say “faith, not works.” Is there some other interpretation of this passage that says differently?”

    We have totally divorced verse 10 from 8 & 9, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Until I started digging in for myself, I had never in 40 plus years heard them read together as a complete thought, which they obviously are.

    Ephesians 2:8-9 doesn’t need another interpretation, it needs completion.

    One tiny idea that has helped me.

  2. Patriarch Jeremias wrote in May 1576 to the Germans in Wittenburg regarding the Confession of Augsburg:

    “In his fourth chapter, on justification by faith alone, the Patriarch points out, quoting Basil, that grace will not be given to those who do not live virtuous lives. He amplifies his views in his fifth and sixth chapters. In the Confession, the fifth article says that faith must be fed with the help of the Holy Scriptures and the Sacraments, and the sixth that faith must bear fruit in good works, though it repeats that good works alone will not bring salvation. Jeremias takes for granted the doctrine given in the fifth article, and uses the chapter to continue his previous argument. The Sermon on the Mount lists virtues that will bring salvation without any reference to faith. Faith without works is not true faith. In the sixth article he warns the Germans not to presume on grace nor despair of it. He makes it clear that he disapproves of anything that might suggest predestined election.”

    Luther Had His Chance
    Orthodox Christian Information Center

    BTW, tThe OCIC document summarizes the Orthodox Church’s response to the full 21 Augsburg articles.

  3. Jason Cebalo says

    Dear Fr. Obregon,

    Thanks for a very interesting post, I’m sure there is much everyone can learn here. But, in point three, I have a hard time working out where you think your position is differnt from that of Rome.

    YOu write: “Like Protestants, the statement says that faith is necessary first. Salvation is by grace through faith, not by works, Romans miss this point.” Forgive me if I missunderstand you, but I get the impression that you think we papists would deny any of what you just said, that we somehow think works can avail to salvation without faith.

    Again, forgive me if I misunderstand, but if this is what you are saying you could not be more wrong. Rome in her teachings makes very clear that slavation is a free gift of grace and that no work without faith and grace can bring a person even the slightest bit closer to salvation. The contrary view is called semi-pelagianism and has been clearly condemned as heresy.

  4. Thanks for the post and the link Michael. I appreciate you providing a place for us to learn about other Christian traditions.

  5. I didn’t read through all the comments in the Sola Fide post, there were just too many by the time I got here, so please forgive me if I’m rehashing material that has already been covered (and in a discussion like this, how can I but do otherwise?) I’m so glad to read Fr. Ernesto’s words. I’m writing from the Orthodox perspective as well. I think a couple of other passages help elucidate the hand-in-hand nature of faith and works: 2 Peter 1:2-11 gets to the heart of what it means to work in faith. We are given all things that pertain to life and godliness, and allowed to become partakers of the divine nature. We are then encouraged to diligently add to our faith these things: virtue, knowledge, self-control, perserverance, godliness, brotherly kindness and love. Without faith, without being given “all things pertaining to life and godliness,” we can accomplish nothing regarding salvation, but with faith, our diligence in works shows us to be what we indeed are in Christ, which is “partakers of the divine nature.” Peter says that if we follow his recommendations, “you will never stumble; for so an entrance will be supplied to you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

    So works are not a means to righteousness but how we participate in the abundance of the gift we have been given and how we avoid neglecting it and thereby stumbling.

    The other passage that came to my mind was 1 Cor. 3:10-15 (the verses preceding these also have much to say on the matter). We are told that the work we do in this life is not the foundation of our salvation, Jesus is, but that how we build on this foundation nevertheless has significance for the final character of our salvation. “The fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is. If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself wil be saved, yet so as through fire.” So here there is no question of acceptance by God being based on the works a person does, but there is the question of works making a difference in the reward or loss one experiences.

    I also thought I’d quote an Orthodox saint, St. Seraphim of Sarov, though I fear that extracting words from a longer discourse might not actually do justice to what he is saying, but I’m already getting long-winded here. St. Seraphim says doing something good “is never of any use, except when it has been done for Christ’s sake (i.e. in faith), since good done not only merits a crown of righteousness in the world to come, but also in this present life fills us with the grace of the Holy Spirit.”

    Please don’t be thrown off by the use of the word “merits.” It has nothing to do with the old Catholic notion of meriting anything from God, but rather has something to do with the 1 Corinthians passage I mentioned earlier. Also, it’s worth pointing out that the Orthodox description of grace differs from the oft-cited Evangelical definition of “unmerited favor.” Instead, in Orthodox thinking, grace is God’s very presence and power in our lives, it is God working in us to will and to do his good pleasure, it is the Holy Spirit’s activity.

    St. Seraphim goes on to describe the foolish virgins in Christ’s parable. He says that the fact that they were virgins means that they were virtuous, that they were concerned to do good works, but yet they were foolish. Why? St. Seraphim says: “I … think that what they were lacking was the grace of the All-Holy Spirit of God. These virgins practiced the virtues, but in their spiritual ignorance they supposed that the Christian life consisted merely in doing good works. By doing a good deed they thought they were doing the work of God, but they little cared whether they acquired thereby the grace of God’s Spirit. Such ways of life based merely on doing good without carefully testing whether they bring the grace of the Spirit of God, are mentioned in the patristic books: ‘There is another way which appears as good at the beginning, but it ends at the bottom of hell (Prov. 16:26)'”

    One further clarification of St. Seraphim is needed, because I’m sure some Protestants might be thrown off by the words “acquired thereby the grace of God’s Spirit,” as though the saint is saying that one first works, then gets grace. That isn’t what he is saying. He goes on to say: “The Holy Spirit Himself takes up His abode in our souls, and this very settling into our souls of His Omnipotence and His abiding with our spirit of His Trinal Unity grants to us every possible means of acquiring the Holy Spirit which prepares in our soul and body a throne for God by means of His all-creating indwelling with our spirit, according to the unlying word of God: ‘I will dwell in them and walk in them; and I will be to them a God and they shall be my people (2 Cor. 6:16)'” So this “acquiring” of the Spirit’s grace is only possible by means of the Spirit himself. The teaching here echoes the teaching found in 2 Peter, which I mentioned earlier. The Orthodox might describe it as participating in grace and growing in grace, and thus going from glory to glory.

    I hope I’ve made a bit of sense here, and I hope that more knowledgeable Orthodox readers will clarify anything that I might have muddied.

    Blessings to all.

  6. Oops. In my first quote of St. Seraphim above, the quote should read “since good done FOR HIM not only merits …”

  7. I’m really enjoying this conversation. Our high school students have been digging into the faith/works question recently.

    I teach them to do the Lord’s will by loving Him and others.

    Matt 25, 7:21,22

    Faith, love are verbs.

    May the Lord’s will be done.

  8. Thanks, Jason, for articulating that point better than I could. I also was confused by that statement. A very interesting article nonetheless.

  9. Thanks for posting the letter and the blog links. I’m always interested in worthwhile blogs to follow and Father Ernesto’s looks like another winner. Thanks again.

  10. Father Obregon: Thank you. This is very helpful.

    tijefe: Thanks for the St. Seraphim quotes concerning the Holy Spirit.

    iMonk: Thank you for yet another excellent post.

  11. That Other Jean says

    Thank you, Father Ernesto, for giving me a great deal to think about; and you, Michael, for posting this letter and the link to another blog I’ll be following.

  12. Hey Jason,

    The danger with writing a short post is that complex items get compressed, sometimes too much. When I spoke of justification by grace through faith and the Roman Church, I was thinking of the following decree from Trent.


    On the increase of Justification received.

    Having, therefore, been thus justified, and made the friends and domestics of God, advancing from virtue to virtue, they are renewed, as the Apostle says, day by day; that is, by mortifying the members of their own flesh, and by presenting them as instruments of justice unto sanctification, they, through the observance of the commandments of God and of the Church, faith co-operating with good works, increase in that justice which they have received through the grace of Christ, and are still further justified . . .


    The prior decrees do indeed speak of justification as an act of God, but here it speaks of justification as something you can grow in by your works. Thus the critique that 16th century Roman Catholics add works in an inappropriate manner. Broadly speaking, it speaks of an initial justification and then a final justification based on works. Another way to put it is that this decree appears to violate the Galatians stricture about having begun by grace are you now continuing by works. While the Orthodox view may appear to be the same, it is not.

    Having said that, both Vatican Council II and the joint Catholic/Lutheran decree on justification seem to have taken a view that is much more compatible with what you said.

  13. I think what Father Ernesto describes sounds a lot like the “Lordship Salvation” expounded by John Macarthur (with a considerably more mystical bent, of course). I don’t see how what Father Ernesto is saying is that different than saying things like, “Faith alone, but a faith that is never alone.” At what point are we getting down to semantics?

  14. In addition to what the Imonk has listed in his update, the Orthodox Christian Network http://www.receive.org/ also has great podcasts. For those leaning in a more crunch and/or paleo con direction politically, Rod Dreher’s commentary is great.

    I am not Orthodox, but I find it very tempting at times. People like Bishop Kallistos Ware and Frederica Matthews-Green have written and spoken words that have absolutely warmed my heart. But then someone reminds me of the brutal oppression in Czarist Russia or I hear some cranky ROCOR monk going on about how how all the Antiochians and OCA folk aren’t “real” Orthodox or I see pictures of Serbian bishops blessing tanks, and I get discouraged.

  15. Since my last comment could be taken critically, I also want to thank Father Ernesto for his post and to say that I too will be reading his blog in the future. His personal story on his blog is truly fascinating and inspiring.

  16. Confused:

    “Faith alone, but true faith is never alone” isn’t Lordship salvation. It’s Luther.

    “Obedience = Faith” is what I hear in Macarthur’s books, esp Hard to Believe.

  17. I just re-read MacArthur’s “The Gospel According to Jesus” and I got “Faith=obedience”. As an algebraic equation it is all the same, but all bet we can argue on it for a while. If you really have faith in who He is, can you do other than obey? [most of the time, when you don’t fail?]

  18. this was a great addition to the discussion, so thank you so much for that. i especially appreciated point 6–isn’t it about doing more? caring for the poor, the widows, the least of these. i don’t think many of us truly want a minimalist christianity, whatever tradition we are in or however our theology falls.

    not to be too pragmatic, but didn’t jesus say that they shall know his disciples by their fruit? which comes from abiding with jesus, not from a doctrine of salvation. hope that doesn’t sound too loosey-goosey, just don’t want to miss the point with all the salvation talk.

    (the point is jesus)

  19. That’s a rather incomplete reading of Trent, Father. Here’s the full text of the Sixth Session : http://www.ewtn.com/library/COUNCILS/TRENT6.htm

    Please note the Canons, which clearly condemn Pelagian and Semi-Pelagian thought, in line with ancient Catholic teaching.

  20. Jason Cebalo says

    Fr. Ernesto,

    Thanks for your reply, but I’m afraid I’m still confused. Trent does indeed speak of the nessecity of works, but so, as you point out, does St. James. However neither the passage you cited nor anywhere else says anything about good works having any value apart from faith indeed the decree on justification quite explicitly denies this.

  21. Thanks Fr Ernesto for that clarification. Obviously, if the Catholic take Chapter X was the same as yours (i.e., apparently that the increase in justification is divorced from grace and faith), then it would be slightly more troublesome. St. James seems pretty clear, though, that man is justified by works (not works alone, mind you). But I have no intent to verse-sling with an Orthodox priest. I think we both agree that would be a losing proposition 🙂

    Anyway, for what it’s worth (not much!), I’ve always understood Trent to be saying that salvation is not static. Initial justification/sanctification is a gift of unmerited grace. But then you must live a holy life (by grace), not because we’re legalists, but because, if you are not growing in grace (further justification/sanctification), then you are slowly drifting away from the source of that grace. And the eventual end of such a drifting is the possibility of loss.

    There is no lowest common denominator. It’s either growth or stagnancy, and stagnancy can lead to death.

  22. BlaineFabin says

    Rob, Jason, and Sam.
    Are you saying the orthodox view (which orthodox is Fr Ernesto?) is the same as the catholic view or is there a difference, that just isn’t as works dependant as pelagianism?

  23. How literally are we to understand any of these verses? Must one have “right faith” in Christ or just believe in God to do anything to please God? I have a hard time working this out in light of the concepts of the justice and mercy of God. I do not mean to change the topic, but in order to hang your hat on any of these arguments, you must see how they are “made flesh” in our world.

    Should a couple of agnostics, living in a godless country, who are some of the kindest, most self-sacrificing people I know be unable to do anything pleasing to God? Is it definitive that the unbelieving person who does any of the things Mother Theresa did, does nothing to please God? What if the person without “true faith” or “any faith” is a child who helps mommy doing any of those “good works” mentioned above? How does the “children are different” exclusionary clause fit in to all this?

  24. BlaineFabin:

    From my reading, Father Ernesto presented the Orthodox view, with the qualification that it differed from the Catholic teaching. Except that insofar as I can see, it’s identical with the Catholic view as expressed by the Magesterium, and I agree entirely with him on Justification. Apparently I’m not the only Catholic who thinks so. Therefore we object to his characterization of Trent.

  25. I have often noticed in online discussions between Orthodox and Catholics or in Orthodox online apologetics that they explain their faith and at one point, they write: “and in this point we differ from the Romans, as follows”, and then write something which sounds like straight out of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The same seems to be the case here.

    Maybe the problem is that – especially in the case of converts to Orthodoxy and especially in ecumenical discussions – Orthodox tend to get into a differential approach, trying to find differences between the Catholic and the Orthodox faith. What results is that many Orthodox are convinced they believe something completely different from Catholics, while many Catholics come away from the discussion convinced that we really believe exactly the same things. (I myself think that our differences are not substantial in the dogmatic sense, but I also know that the theological approach is often quite different.)

    The Catholic Church has actually a pretty wide scope regarding justification, provided it doesn’t fall into either Pelagianism or Jansenism. See “Controversies on Grace” (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/06710a.htm) in the Catholic Encyclopedia.

  26. It is Sunday, a way too busy day for me. I do promise to reply more either late tonight or early tomorrow.

    I did get a chuckle out of the several who commented that it seems like semantics to them. Even some in our ranks wonder how much is a difference in emphasis and how much is true difference, between us, Roman Catholics, and (particularly) Martin Luther. I will argue later that it is not just emphasis.

    There is no doubt that we have our version of fundamentalist Protestants or sedevacante (empty see) Catholics who magnify the differences between us and anyone who is not us and see any possible rapproachment as a sign that our Church is falling into heresy. Like the first two mentioned groups, they see the unity of the Church only in terms of, . . . “if they change their minds and believe and practice just like us, then there can finally be a return to the One Church.”

    There is also no doubt that we have our equivalent of those who so minimize the differences between Churches that the wonder is that the Church ever bothered to fight about anything at all in history other than the most general of statements and practices.

    There are days when I wonder if it is worth it to be a moderate. GRIN.

  27. Jason Cebalo says


    YOu ask if I think the Catholic and Orthodox positions on justification are the same, don’t really know enough about Orthodox theology to give a meaningful answer, but I will say this, I see nothing in Fr. Ernesto’s article that I, as a Catholic, would have any great problem affirming.

    As to the second half of your question, I dont really understand what you are asking, but the Catholic position is that works are needed but that these works must, to have any saving value, flow from Faith Hope and Charity. It is also the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church that even our good works are pure gifts from God.

    Fr. Ernesto, thanks again for your reply. I sincerly hope you have a good Sunday.

  28. Our preacher, moonlights as a prof of philosophy at our local university, mentioned this morning that many of the atheists he knows “don’t want grace”
    because they recognize the responsibility that accompanies it; too bad many professing christinas fail to see that responsibility.

    This discussion of faith/works reminds me that there are passages where belief and obedience are synonymous (or belief and disobedience are antonyms). If belief that saves includes only three elements (knowledge, assent, confidence), then it is hard to explain how pisteuo (believe) and apeitho (disobey) can be antonyms. There are at least two places in the New Testament where “belief” and “disobedience” are contrasted, and these show convincingly that the faith that saves includes obedience as one of its constituent elements. And there is one passage where “unbelief” and “disobedience” are synonymous. (Heb 3:18,19) The faith that saves (the opposite of “unbelief”) must include obedience (the opposite of disobedience).

    Then there are the passages that speak of the “obedience of faith” which show that there is an obedience that belongs to the very essence of faith. Such language has been met in Acts 6:7, and also appears twice in Rom, which gives help toward knowing what the faith is on the condition of which a man is justified. (Rom 1:5; 16:26) Peter too talks about how his readers have purified their souls by obedience to the truth, (1 Peter 1:22) and Peter throughout his letters shows the close connection between obedience and forgiveness. (See 1 Peter 1:2; 3:1; 4:17; 2 Peter 1:1. [See also 1Thes 1:8 and Rom 10:5 for other evidences that obedience is involved in a man’s faith.]) If there is an obedience that belongs to the very essence of faith, the faith that saves must involve obedience to what God requires.

  29. GOD IS LOVE. If one removes ALL opinion from the discussion of Sole Fide… and considers the depth, expanse, and sheer rawness of God’s LOVE, the response of WORKS (FRUITS) is easier understood. Grace is about LOVE… in the purest form and is the nature of our Father. ‘Becoming flesh’ and descending into the pit of evil death (second death) in our stead… was the ONLY thing large enough to demonstrate His LOVE toward us. As we accept the gift of His gut-wrenching GRACE (…HE SCREAMED.. WHY HAVE YOU FORSAKEN ME?, we fellowship with His person by way of the Holy Spirit. The response of such a fellowship is WORKS. As Willow said, “Can one do other than obey?”

    There is no ‘drive-thru Grace.’

    Fr. Ernesto, thank you.

  30. On the apparent dichotomy between James and the Pauline epistles. I’ve always, since becoming a christian, thought that the works which James talks about were more a fruit of the spirit sort of thing. We have clear teaching throughout the Bible that faith is key. Just as a for instance, we know from Genesis that Noah believed what God said. Now consider the effect on all of us if Noah, believes that God will destroy the earth, but does not build the Ark, not good – right?

    So at various time and places we have people who both believe God’s message to them, and then act on that message in some way. So we can not separate their works from their faith, since without that work we would as in the case of Noah, be dead.

  31. I don’t have a comment on this post, other than a big thank-you to both Fr. Ernesto for writing it and Michael for posting it.

    I listen to some Ancient Faith Radio (I’m Orthodox) and I truly enjoy Fr. Thomas Hopko and Matthew Gallatin (whose book Thirsting for God in a Land of Shallow Wells I very much enjoyed). There are a couple of people whose blogs I read, although I don’t listen to the podcasts (mainly because my time for listening is limited and I prefer to read than to listen), primarily Fr. Stephen Freeman and Molly Sabourin, who are both amazing in their abilities to communicate and share their faith.

    Also Michael, you may be interested in listening to the podcasts from the OCA All-American Council of the newly elected Metropolitan Jonah. He has quite the vision for the future of the church in America. It’s very inspiring.

  32. “From my reading, Father Ernesto presented the Orthodox view, with the qualification that it differed from the Catholic teaching. Except that insofar as I can see, it’s identical with the Catholic view as expressed by the Magesterium, and I agree entirely with him on Justification.”

    I have experienced the same.
    Some time ago, I debated with the Orthodox about “sola fide”, and they told me (or rather stressed) the the difference between the east and west way of thinking was that the first used “metaphors from the hospital” while the latter use “mertaphors from the courtroom” to describe the process of justification of the sinner.

    Later, while exploring the Catholic faith, I could not see this big difference at all – and the first thing I found in the Cathecism was the hospital metaphor.

    So, in my eyes, the dogma of justification seems to be virtually the same. But Luther (or rather Augsburg) was rejected BOTH by the Romans and the Greek on this issue – and with the same arguments.

  33. Tigger, that was as excellent a summation of Biblical teaching on faith and works as I’ve ever seen, short of C. S. Lewis’ scissor analogy: “Regarding the debate about faith and works: It’s like asking which blade in a pair of scissors is most important.” Which is, in the end, what the Concilar Fathers at Trent were getting at.

  34. The response by Dan Smith is an excellent response from my viewpoint. “Then there are the passages that speak of the ‘obedience of faith’ which show that there is an obedience that belongs to the very essence of faith.” The two are linked in Scripture. What we are debating about is not whether a person who believes should have a life that demonstrates that belief, both in personal and societal ways. I think we all agree that if it does NOT quack like a duck and does NOT walk like a duck, then it AIN’T a duck. No works means no faith, unless you completely reject St. James. We are debating strictly about the relationship between faith, works, and justification.

    Now, let me go back a step. In the fourth century, the difference between a heretic and an orthodox believer was the letter “i”. The debate with Arianism was over whether Jesus was homoousion or homoiousion. That is, was Jesus of the “same substance” or of “similar substance” to the Father? (The question of the Holy Spirit was peripheral, at that point, since whatever was said of Jesus would end up applying to the Holy Spirit.) The Council of Nicea discerned that Jesus was “of the same substance,” which is the Christian position to this day, regardless of whether you are Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant.

    In the same way, there may be only a small difference between the Orthodox and Catholic views on works, but it is a crucial difference. Jason comments, “but the Catholic position is that works are needed,” and Rob says, “because, if you are not growing in grace (further justification/sanctification), then you are slowly drifting away from the source of that grace.”

    Most Orthodox would not tend to hook “needed” and “justification” in the same phrase with works. (We might put “needed” in, but not in reference to justification.) Actually, Rob’s comment is indicative of the joint Protestant/Orthodox critique of Trent. As the catechism of St. Philaret points out, justification is related to faith not to works (look back above). Works have to do with sanctification ONLY and with forming your life towards Christ.

    Nevertheless, we are not saved in a vacuum, we are saved into something. We are saved into a covenant. That covenant has the expectation that we will cooperate with God in forming our life into a God-like life. Tijefe points out that we are not left alone in fulfilling that covenant, rather that God, knowing our weaknesses and sin, provided the Holy Spirit to help us on our way. Moreover, the juridical orientation of the West tends to make the Christian life into an either/or proposition which, in my view, is not fully Biblical.

    In other words, in the West we tend to argue that it is an all or nothing proposition. Either we keep the whole covenant or we have nothing. Meantime, the East argues that Christ’s victory means that we are now in a different position from all or nothing. That is, the Holy Spirit is akin to a physical therapist who works with us and helps us, and even performs inner miracles in order to allow us to strengthen ourselves in our new life. (Actually, he is much more than that, any metaphor about God is necessarily inadequate.) But, if we refuse physical therapy (in my very bad analogy), we are not only likely to remain crippled, but even what we have will be taken away from us.

    That is, we argue that, like the physical therapy metaphor, one must strive to grow whole. Failures, like in physical therapy, are not dealt with by condemnation but by the encouragement from God to continue to grow in our Lord Jesus. Nevertheless, that encouragement fails where one either refuses to “enter into physical therapy,” or where one deliberately turns one’s back on that therapy. Hebrews says, “For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries.”

  35. I don’t think sola fida=”drive through grace.” I’ve never thought that. Abraham is our great example of faith and works (interesting that he’s an example from before Christ’s redemptive work on the cross). Abraham believed God, offered up his son in obedience and it was attributed to him as righteousness. Did offering up his son give him righteousness? No. Believing God – solidly, utterly, staking everything on his belief – this earned Abraham his righteousness. I love what Willow wrote, in the face of a Savior I believe so utterly, “Can one do other than obey?”
    In my own life I have seen this truth play out: when I humbly believe and surrender myself to obeying my Creator, my Savior, THEN are my works the most pure, the most self-less. But I believed first. Everything else is a life of love. Everything else is a gift.

  36. justification is related to faith not to works

    Fr. Ernesto,
    What is the Orthodox view of this:

    “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone”


  37. Fr. Ernesto, are you back tracking here?

    “As the catechism of St. Philaret points out, justification is related to faith not to works (look back above). Works have to do with sanctification ONLY and with forming your life towards Christ.”

    So then what do judgment scenes in scripture mean: Matthew 25:31-46; Matthew 7:21-23; John 5:29; and [Rev 20:12]the dead were judged according to their deeds, by what was written in the scrolls??

  38. Well, I certainly hope I am not backtracking. GRIN. If I am wrong, I would hope that I would prefer to admit it rather than spin it. BTW, because I am a parish priest, I tend to only be able to post once or twice a day.

    Let me try to phrase it a different way. The Orthodox see the West (Protestant and Catholic) as being mistaken in the same way. They are two sides of the same coin when it comes to faith and works. What do I mean?

    One of our authors pointed out, “A search of Greek patristic literature on the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae shows that, over a period of a couple of centuries that includes the theologically-rich fourth century, most Greek Fathers don’t talk much about dikaiosuvnh (‘justification’ or ‘righteousness’) except when exegeting a passage using that term.” The two exceptions are St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Athanasius of Alexandria. And again, “Eastern Christianity from its origins shows a singular lack of interest in discussing its soteriology in terms of justification.” This is part of the reason why I am having trouble expressing myself clearly.

    Frankly, the other reason is that I have the stomach flu. I have now been staring at the previous paragraph for over half an hour and my brain is not functioning. I ask for a little mercy and I will try to finish tomorrow.

  39. Jason Cebalo says

    Dear Fr.

    My sincere best wishes and hopes that yo get over your flu (I’ll be praying for you). And thanks again for an interesting discussion.

  40. If it’s what my wife had, you will need four days until your stomach will tolerate justification.

  41. OK, I have cross posted what is below on my blog, where there is a parallel discussion going on.


    Warning: If you have not read C.S. Lewis’ book, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe then this post will not make sense to you.

    In the midst of all the discussion that has been going on over justification, salvation, sanctification, etc. on this blog and on other blogs on which I have posted, I found myself remembering one of my favorite books, C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. And, as I remembered it, it struck me that C.S. Lewis had given a very good fictional representation of the Eastern Orthodox emphases on some of the issues concerning salvation.

    1. The Early Church Fathers had a very strong emphasis on the Incarnation and that emphasis was hooked to salvation. More than one Church Father insisted that it was not simply the fact that our Lord obeyed the Law that made his incarnation important, nor just the fact that he is God come to dwell among us. Rather, the very fact of the Incarnation means that human nature has been taken up and sanctified already in a very special way. And because that has happened, all creation is also on that path.

    To us, the process of justification began with the Incarnation, even more than for the West (which also says the process began with the Incarnation, but with less emphasis than we give it). 1 Cor. 15:45 says, “So it is written: ‘The first man Adam became a living being’; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit.” And Rom. 8:19-21 says, “The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.” Notice that as Aslan advanced into Narnia, the thawing reached out and reached out far ahead of his advance. His simple presence (incarnation) into Narnia was sufficient to begin the process of freedom from the old.

    2. When we get to the death scene there is a set of interesting subtexts that are happening. First, of course Aslan substitutes for Edmund. No one is denying that. (In real life, Jesus substituted for all of us, but it is a fiction book, after all). However, note what the reason is that Aslan gives for the necessity of his death:

    “Have you forgotten the Deep Magic?” asked the Witch. “Let us say I have forgotten it,” answered Aslan gravely. “Tell us of this Deep Magic.” “Tell you?” said the Witch, her voice growing suddenly shriller. “Tell you what is written on that very Table of Stone which stands beside us? Tell you what is written in letters deep as a spear is long on the fire-stones on the Secret Hill? Tell you what is engraved on the scepter of the Emperor-beyond-theSea? You at least know the Magic which the Emperor put into Narnia at the very beginning. You know that every traitor belongs to me as my lawful prey and that for every treachery I have a right to a kill.” “Oh,” said Mr. Beaver. “So that’s how you came to imagine yourself a queen—because you were the Emperor’s hangman. I see.”

    Note that the Emperor over the Sea is not pictured as demanding retribution. Rather, the creation is built as a moral universe, and the failure to follow through on the implications of the moral universe could damage the very fabric of it, if the retribution is not claimed. However, the retribution is not claimed by the Emperor over the Sea, but by the Witch. Mark 10:45 says, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”

    It may interest you to know that St. Augustine, himself, as well as St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Gregory the Great, and Peter Lombard, among many others held the view that the ransom was paid to Satan. It was not until St. Anselm (1033-1109) that a concerted attack is mounted by him to argue that the ransom was paid to God the Father. St. Thomas Aquinas, the heart of medieval scholastic Roman theology agreed with him. And, that view has become the dominant view in the West, but not in the East. We still agree with those Early Fathers.

    3. The ransom was paid to the Witch by Aslan’s death, but the Witch does not realize that she has made a terrible mistake. 1 Cor. 2:7-8 say, “No, we speak of God’s secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” That is the Deeper Magic which Scripture calls, “God’s secret wisdom.”

    “It means,” said Aslan, “that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward.”

    4. Though salvation has substitution as a necessary sub-theme, the argument is that the main theme of salvation is not juridical atonement. Rather, the main theme of salvation, and therefore justification, is the victory of Christ over Satan and over death. We are justified by grace through faith, not as a simple juridical pronouncement but as the prizes of a great victory won by our God. Ephesians 4:7-8 says, “But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says: ‘When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train and gave gifts to men.’”

    5. So, the Eastern Orthodox, by and large, do not tend to talk as much about faith vs works, because we do not see even Jesus himself as paying a legal price for our atonement, but rather as ransoming us and then winning the great victory over Satan, as the main theme.

    6. This is why it is so tough for Eastern and Western believers to understand each other. Works are not related to atonement. Death, resurrection, victory are related to atonement.

    ===MORE TO COME===

  42. 2 Corinthians 5:10-11 – 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. Knowing, therefore, the terror of the Lord, we persuade men; but we are well known to God . . .”

    I wrote the note on Aslan for a reason. No, I was not just trying to delay. GRIN. I had commented, tongue in cheek, that if you gave me the definition, I could prove anything.

    Now, not so tongue in cheek, that is what we say the West did strongly, particularly after Anselm and Aquinas. Salvation began to be defined more and more in juridical terms rather than in Christus Victor terms. As a result, justification became more and more a purely judical (or forensic) term and became much more important, as a term, than it had been in the Early Church Fathers. As a result, the whole place of faith and works changed in the West from what it had been in the Early Church, as did the interpretation of St. Paul’s writings.

    BTW, what I wrote above would take too long to write out, so I won’t try. Suffice it to say that the Orthodox see the Roman Church and Protestants as arguing over the concept of works-righteousness, but on the basis of an atonement theology that is out of balance.

    However, because both the Roman Catholic Church and Protestants actually agree on the definition of terms, it makes it very hard to explain the differences with the Orthodox because our definition of some of the terms has a different twist to it. As a result, justification, as a term, is not high on the radar of the Early Church Fathers.

    As I have said, like Protestants, we are saved by grace through faith . . . not by works that no one should boast. There is no ongoing growing in justification as Trent said. But, we are saved into something. We are saved into a covenant that has covenant-conditions. And, while the covenant conditions are not works of the flesh, neither are the conditions an achieved perfection, they do involve works. As St. Paul said in the next verse of Ephesians, we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. And, in the quote with which I began, St. Paul actually agrees with St. James that a work-less faith means an eternally reward-less state.

    My striving for holiness, my sanctification, my theosis, my being willing to take my medicine (works), is a covenant condition of what we have been baptized into, what we have been saved for, what Ephesians says we were pre-destined to do, works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

  43. Father Ernesto, have you read anything by N.T Wright, Anglican Bishop of Durham? I may be misunderstanding, but what you expressed in your last comment sounds a lot like some things he’s been saying.

  44. Actually, I do like N.T. Wright. However, I am not the first one to point out that C.S. Lewis views in his book mirror the Early Church Fathers.

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