Justification, faith and works. 33rd Mon after Pentecost.

Today’s readings, followed by a few pastoral & personal thoughts.

Today’s reading from St James is one of my favorites. It is also one of the least understood parts of the NT, because of a misunderstanding about what “justification” is. Some Orthodox Christians may not see what the “big deal” is here, but this is a “big deal”, and a huge stumbling block for many Western believers.

 

To be “justified” is to become righteous. This is not imputed unto us by fiat from God, but comes about because of our struggle to be righteous, and the grace of God helping us. Before the incarnation, no struggle for righteousness could be wholly successful. God became man, and changed fundamental human nature, making it capable of total righteousness – total “justification”.

 

The great chasm in understanding comes from considering “justification” to be a legal process, where Jesus Christ offered a perfect sacrifice to His Father by proxy. Orthodox understand justification to be the gradual change of the inner man to holiness. All this is made possible because of the incarnation. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

 

In all things in life, we learn by doing. Justification is no different. The Christian must “hear” the Gospel (whether by mouth, written word, and always by the inner groanings[1] of the Holy Spirit) and act upon it to know God. Knowledge in the scriptural sense always involves action. One could also say: faith always involves works.

 

Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only (James 2:25)

 

If we do not emulate Christ in our works, we cannot know Him – we cannot be justified. The works are part of “knowing” God. Without them, we do not change.

 

And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent. (John 17:3)

 

There is a righteous recent Greek nun, who recommended that the Christian would read St James EVERY DAY. This is how important it is that we understand faith and works.

 

 

 

James 2:14-26 14 What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, 16 And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? 17 Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. 18 Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works. 19 Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. 20 But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? 22 Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? 23 And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God. 24 Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only. 25 Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way? 26 For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.

 

Mark 10:46-52 46 And they came to Jericho: and as he went out of Jericho with his disciples and a great number of people, blind Bartimaeus, the son of Timaeus, sat by the highway side begging. 47 And when he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to cry out, and say, Jesus, thou son of David, have mercy on me. 48 And many charged him that he should hold his peace: but he cried the more a great deal, Thou son of David, have mercy on me. 49 And Jesus stood still, and commanded him to be called. And they call the blind man, saying unto him, Be of good comfort, rise; he calleth thee. 50 And he, casting away his garment, rose, and came to Jesus. 51 And Jesus answered and said unto him, What wilt thou that I should do unto thee? The blind man said unto him, Lord, that I might receive my sight. 52 And Jesus said unto him, Go thy way; thy faith hath made thee whole. And immediately he received his sight, and followed Jesus in the way.

 

Bibliography

The Explanation of the Holy Gospel according to St Mark, by Blessed Theophylact, published by Chrysostom Press – http://www.chrysostompress.org/. ALL FOUR BOOKS ARE HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!

 

Priest Seraphim Jan 13/26 2009                                                                                            St Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, McKinney, Texas

http://www.orthodox.net/scripture/ pentecost-monday-33_2009_james2;14-26+mark10;46-52.html

http://www.orthodox.net/scripture/ pentecost-monday-33_2009_james2;14-26+mark10;46-52.rtf

http://www.orthodox.net/scripture/ pentecost-monday-33_2009_james2;14-26+mark10;46-52.pdf

 

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[1] Rom 8:26  Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered

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4 Responses to “Justification, faith and works. 33rd Mon after Pentecost.”

  1. This comment is posted with permission from The St Nicholas email list: http://groups.google.com/group/saint-nicholas-orthodox-church

    Father, Bless,

    That is a very enlightening explanation. The legal explanation/definition of justification in Western theology always bothered me, but I never could quite explain why. It just always seemed to me to be a flawed analogy attempting to explain a mysterious Reality. So if I understand correctly, you are saying that the word does not mean that we have been declared just by the ‘decree’ of God because of the sacrifice of His son, but are actually being made just, in reality, through the power made available to us through the sacrifice of His son.

    And the analogy that has helped me to think of the relationship of faith and works is that of life and breathing. If a person isn’t breathing then they are either dead or soon will be.

    In Christ,

    Deborah

  2. On Mon, Jan 26, 2009 at 9:51 AM, Deborah wrote:

    Father, Bless,

    That is a very enlightening explanation. The legal explanation/
    definition of justification in Western theology always bothered me,
    but I never could quite explain why. It just always seemed to me to be
    a flawed analogy attempting to explain a mysterious Reality.

    And with flawed understanding of reality, we will not reach our goal. What we understand really matters. Of course, understanding about spiritual things is always by the grace of God, as we struggle to be good. Without both – no true understanding. The trajedy of flawed theological teaching is that it starts us off with bad ideas, and as it were, a flawed “road map”. By the grace of God, all misunderstandings can be corrected, of course, but it is a shame that so many people are handicapped by incorrect teachings. It is also a pity that so many are handicapped because so many do not SEEK OUT the correct teachings – their bible is dusty, and they are watching TV on Saturday night. It takes a lot of effort and repitition to learn the truth about God (that is, for us to live in the truth).

    So if I
    understand correctly, you are saying that the word does not mean that
    we have been declared just by the ‘decree’ of God because of the
    sacrifice of His son, but are actually being made just, in reality,
    through the power made available to us through the sacrifice of His
    son.

    With, of course, our effort. We are not saved because of works, but we WILL NOT be saved without works. Justification is a lifelong, arduous, assisted process.

    And the analogy that has helped me to think of the relationship of
    faith and works is that of life and breathing. If a person isn’t
    breathing then they are either dead or soon will be.

    And also, IF you are alive, you WILL breathe.

    Priest Seraphim

  3. Natalia Arzhantseva says:

    Father, thank you!

    Touched me on the raw. and the following came up:

    “Jesus, thou son of David, have mercy on me”

    I think these are the words that we omit when we do our good deeds. We often rely much on our works, and more of that – we choose works that are preferable to us, that look more attractive, hoping inside for grateful audience appraisal, awaiting or even demanding “applause”. Thus feeding our pride & self-estimation. Vanity often is the source of our actions.

    “Jesus, thou son of David, have mercy on me”

    These are the words that We should cry out when we have a chance to do something – in the framework of our everyday duties, or any good deed towards our neighbor. Because with His mercy our works may lead not to the good we meant, but to some opposite result. We should ask God to guide our positive energy, our noble impulses to the right channel. Especially if we have no priest or trustworthy person, whom we can trust & whose advice we can ask in this connection. As our works can do much harm to our neighbor and ourselves, because we seldom can understand what is really good & what is devastating. We should seek to obtain the inner feeling of recognizing what exactly the works that we are destined to do are. As we often underestimate what we have & are anxious to reach what we don’t, but sometimes think that we must get it at all price. We thus underestimate “the little”, and dream of “the big”, “the great”, having forgotten that the road to the great passes through the little, and only this way. It’s like strolling about the streets in search of the bakery, which is located in front of our house. And was always there (but we didn’t notice – such a trifle)! It’s like combing out the forest thoroughly, looking for a jewel, which is here on the road under your feet (where we would prefer not to look. What for? If it’s something precious, it should be definitely some far away, and surround by a certain mystery, and I’ll be a real hero If I – not somebody else – find it!

    We just forget (or don’t’ like to remember, as it’s so boring!) that the great is in the little, and for the little our God gives us the great.

    Who of us did not come across a situation, when it’s much easier to do something big, difficult, costly – than to do very simple, unnoticeable, routine? It happens that it’s much easier & preferable to obtain some precious thing for any person, or a church, hand it over to him triumphantly, and enjoy ourselves, witnessing the happiness all around by appraisal from everyone; than to make way for somebody’s car on the road, or a seat to an elderly man in metro. And are we very seldom in the situation, when we rush to help “the whole world”, having not asked our ill mother what medicine we should purchase for her today? Or didn’t we prefer to open the “awful truth”, accuse another person, without knowing perfectly well about him & his actions? The intention was so noble – but the result maybe far from that+

    “The big”, to be more exact, what we view as “the big” can make us grow in our own eyes, and also – in the eyes of others. But we should bother how not to lose ourselves in the eyes of God!

    Good deeds are thus, I think, not so harmless. As the SOURCES of our intentions, the inspirers are may be different.

    “Jesus, thou son of David, have mercy on me”

    These words we should remember when we burn with the desire to “improve this imperfect world”. We should pray, so that our works can be really welcome to God, so that we really can serve Our Lord our neighbors in spirit & truth, so that we have reasoning & at least a little wisdom “to differ the spirits”. So that we are able to bring up our “inner person”, and not to feed our pride to the sizes of an elephant. And – so that the God will of us can be fulfilled. We should develop ourselves, help ourselves to open, discover our capabilities, find out what it is that we really can bring to God & people, how WE can help, we, but not that imaginary person whom we prefer often to regard ourselves, whose image we draw in our head & to which we try to correspond to. And if we fail – “Jesus, thou son of David, have mercy on me”.

    The thoughts extorted as an exclamation, sorry. All that I say or write concerns me first of all.

    In Christ,

    Natalia
    This comment is posted with permission from The St Nicholas email list: http://groups.google.com/group/saint-nicholas-orthodox-church

  4. Nicholas Park says:

    To me, the most telling part of this passage is: “Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works.” So many times, misunderstandings come down to matters of terminology. To many ears, “good works” refers to what Natalia calls “the big” – things that we make a big deal out of, plans that we have. To St. James, on the other hand, “good works” seem to be one’s faith worked out in very deed. If we have real faith in God, then we will trust his words, and will live as he has told us to live, following his commandments in every decision that we have to make in life – even when such a decision would seem foolish to worldly eyes.

    So then, many of what the world considers to be “good deeds” are actually not good, since they are done as an expression not of faith, but of pride and self-reliance. (Everything I do, for example…) It is the deed done humbly, in obedience of God, trusting only in him, that is truly good. If we have faith, it cannot but reflect itself in our lives. “Let your light so shine before men.” But first we must have faith. Maybe this is part of the reason that humility is the first of the beatitudes.

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