Since the fall of human nature, since the divisive moment of separation between man and God, a longing for the paradise lost has been lying in the souls of people. The curse that was imposed as a punishment for the fall often acts as a medicine for the soul and reminds everyone of that blissful life and delight, of that Divine joy that we lost, which we have exchanged for our current existence. And if a person does not seek to escape from the consequences of sin through sin itself, if they do not block this voice of longing with the oppression of new transgressions, then they are constantly faced with the question – how could one return to that state, how could one atone for their guilt, and to whose help, for whose intercession could they resort.
All human religious confessions have developed around this issue, which also forms the basis of true Divine worship. A person either convinces themselves that they are at peace with God and acts as the standard for their own life and salvation, or seeks false, fake ways of satisfying their conscience, or, having understood their own helplessness, they turn to God. Every person has stood at such a moral crossroads, every society, every nation. The decision often became doctrine, but it has always depended on the inner state of the one choosing.
Having chosen, with the help of God, the establishment of peace with God as being the only possible path to salvation, each person in time arrives at the question: what is my role in regards to my own salvation, and what is God’s significance? And since ancient times, different people have answered this question differently. Over time, human experience has developed three distinct, evident teachings, which seemed like the only ones that were plausible and correct to their adherents.
The first path suggests that a person take upon themselves the deed of their own salvation, to work on it for a certain amount of time and thereby become worthy, “to receive what one has earned”. This path has always been associated with a person’s uncertainty in their hope. A purely businesslike mindset wants to be confident with regards to its condition both within society, and even more so in relation to God. To do this, it is necessary to have and, in a purely pragmatic sense, present a means of achieving such a level of confidence. The easiest way is to invest oneself with some “necessary deeds, without which it is impossible to achieve salvation.” The accomplishment of these deeds with the correct mystical behaviour is the key to a person’s salvation. Specifically, it is the desire to physically perceive one’s own salvation, which is based upon a veiled element of pride, that is the reason for such a legal understanding of salvation.
Another path, with its simplicity and greater contrivance toward human feelings, follows as a contrast to the first. If a person can do something by their own efforts, then what position does God occupy in their salvation? Man is a being incomparable with God; how can he cooperate with God? And, therefore, a person must fully leave their salvation to God. A person must become a “block”, a “salt pillar” and not take any actions. God will do
absolutely everything Himself; a person needs only to agree to this. Moreover, a person must be confident that they are already saved, and doing anything more is completely unnecessary. A person can live for their own pleasure and simply, above all, not forget for a moment that they are saved. The underlying reason for this position is also superficial.
But there is a third path. This path leads to true salvation, true worship of God, true spiritual life. It was travelled by all the righteous ones and the saints of God from the very creation of the world. Any person who stands upon this path and walks along it to the end reaches the true purpose of life, and returns to their original homeland. This path was predestined by the Lord Himself. From an external perspective, this path is quite difficult and unwieldy, but it is the only possible one. And how do God and man agree with each other and cooperate on this path? What role is occupied by the insignificant human will in the great deed of salvation accomplished by the eternal God? There have been many disputes regarding this throughout the entirety of human history; there have been many deliberations concerning this even after the coming of Christ; many divisions and disputes have been brought into the world with this question.
Man, as the most perfect creation of God, having lost many of the advantages of his nature after the fall, nevertheless retained the likeness of God, which consisted of complete freedom of choice. Man also retained a fraction of the voice of God inherent to him – the conscience. And life, be it in truth or contrary to it, was determined by one’s obedience to this conscience. “For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves” (Rom. 2:14). Fulfilling the pre-eternal promise of the salvation of man, the Lord granted the Law to the people, which was “our tutor to bring us to Christ.” The Law became a period of service that fulfilled its purpose for a certain time. The Law prescribed the rule of faith which led a person to God, and served as the standard of righteousness. Very quickly, the people who accepted the Covenant with God proceeded to fulfil the Law and achieve their salvation in the first, legal, way — they determined the matter of their salvation to be within the fulfilment of the Law. This turned into an unsightly mechanical fulfilment of the ritualistic and other material instructions. Righteousness before God was replaced by righteousness before people and oneself. It was very convenient for a person to have before themselves a portrayal of their own righteousness and thereby drown out their conscience.
The coming of Christ, and the Redemption of mankind by His Most Holy Blood exposed this misunderstanding of the place held by the Law and its works in the life of a person. People were granted a new condition for true reconciliation with God; they were given the New Testament. This new condition stood on a completely different plane than the conditions of the Law. Faith was required of a person. And a person can only believe with their heart; faith cannot be simulated; faith cannot be acted out. Faith has become the true standard of a person’s relationship with God. Faith has become the founding stone of the new building of God – the Church. But faith is an action of the heart. What place then is held by actions of the flesh? Or is it completely vacant? Or are deeds still crucial in the life of a Christian? If so, how are faith and deeds related? In the early days of its existence, the Church concerned itself with these questions. Two universal pillars of the Church, Apostles Paul and Jacob (James), developed and supplemented this in their epistles.
Apostle Paul, a child of the Pharisian community, took in with mother’s milk a reverent attitude towards the fulfilment of the Law. The huge system of Jewish fulfilment of the Law had been apparent to him since childhood. And he, like no other Christian, upon his conversion saw the spiritual crookedness of the status quo. In a number of his epistles, Apostle Paul pointed out the inferiority of the practice that was deeply rooted in Judaism: to hope in the deeds of the Law. Based on the notion that Christ is the fulfilment of the Law, that the Law was preparation for the acceptance of Christ, Apostle Paul taught of the transition of the Law. He said that “Christ is the end of the law” (Rom. 10:4). And since the Law no longer prevails over man, “by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight” (Rom. 3:20). It would seem that this is a call to moral indifference. Throughout the Old Testament, man determined his righteousness by his deeds. And here his hope is reduced to nothing. The Apostle at the same time proposes to place above all the spiritual component of human salvation. Throughout a series of epistles, Apostle Paul spoke of the salvation of man through faith. “A man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law” (Rom. 3:28). Thus, rejecting the deeds of the Law, Apostle Paul rejected the legal idea of salvation. This spirit of legalism pervaded the Jewish environment quite profoundly, to such an extent that Judaism has become a religion of rites. Apostle Paul speaks of deeds in their inherent sense, as they were understood in Judaism. For the Jews, there existed a mercenary attitude towards God. The basis of this relationship was the concept of contract and merit. The Law was granted to them, and because of it they had the opportunity to earn merit and therefore reward before God. Righteousness was understood as the correlation between god-pleasing and sinful acts. Seeing this danger, and sympathising with his brethren, Apostle Paul writes an open letter to all Hebrews, in which he resolutely warns against such a destructive attitude in regards to the deeds of the Law.
The epistle to the Hebrews was written by Apostle Paul in the wake of a dispute between Christians from among the Jews and Gentiles concerning the transition of the Old Testament. Judeo-Christians, living under the protection of the Law, attempted to perceive Christ as an addition to the Old Testament and continued to place the Law at the forefront. Deeds of the Law were perceived as being mandatory in order for one to enter the Church. This problem, along with others, Apostle Paul touched upon in the Epistle to the Hebrews. The epistle was sent to all Hebrews, both those living in Palestine and those dispersed. Apostle Paul did not even specifically address a nation or religious group. He disavowed the incorrect religious attitude regarding the position held by deeds of the Law, and therefore his voice was relevant to the entire Christian community.
In a series of his epistles to local Churches, Apostle Paul spoke of the significance of faith in the work of salvation. “We conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law” (Rom. 3:28), “Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith” (Gal. 3:2). And Apostle Paul especially clearly and well-reasoned speaks of the significance of faith in the work of salvation in his Epistle to the Hebrews. The eleventh chapter provides many different examples of the feats of faith through which the zealots of the Old Testament became righteous. None of them were justified by their deeds; each of them passed a test of faith. And this long line is crowned with the “author and finisher of faith”, Jesus.
All these exact historical references were well known to every Hebrew. The arguments were more than significant. Such a convincing chain of zealots of faith leads the reader to the notion that never, even in the Old Testament, was someone saved only by deeds. The driving force of salvation has always been faith. Faith, which is “the evidence of things not seen,” is necessary for a person’s conscious, free pursuit of God. Faith is the only true approach to the Law. Faith is the key to communication between God and man. And “without faith it is impossible to please God, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him” (Heb. 11:6).
From this group of Old Testament zealots of faith, attention should especially be drawn to the example of Abraham and Rahab. The Apostle says that “by faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac” (v. 17). “By faith the harlot Rahab did not perish with those who did not believe, when she had received the spies with peace” (v. 31). Speaking of them, the Apostle also claims that they were saved namely by faith. Faith in its purest form, without the addition of the works of the Law. And this was true righteousness before God, hidden for the time being from man. Therefore, faith is characterised as “the substance of things hoped for.” It is the fundamental characteristic of a Christian.
In this context, what did Apostle Paul mean in his other epistles? For example, that the Lord “will render to each one according to his deeds” (Rom. 2:6), or “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). Doesn’t faith itself abolish the necessity and significance of human deeds for salvation? Can it be resolutely said that only faith is required of a person for their salvation? But, most importantly, how can it be understood whether or not a person has faith. And what can and should the manifestations of faith be in a person. What reflects this gift of grace? And if by the deeds of the Law no flesh will be justified, then for what deeds will the Lord reward each person? Apostle Jacob (James) answered these questions in his responsive epistle.
The general epistle of Apostle Jacob can be considered as a responsive manifesto to the “open” Epistle to the Hebrews. For the Primate of the Church of Jerusalem it was fitting to take the message and counter the misplaced focuses of those who read the Epistle to the Hebrews. The bishop of the Church of Jerusalem, Apostle Jacob, adopted Paul’s position and immediately formulated his response as Primate of the Christian community. This is not to say that Apostle Jacob penned a rebuttal to the epistle by Paul. Rather, his work was a warning against the misinterpretation of the words of Apostle Paul.
His more subtle experience with the spiritual nourishment of Christians did not allow for the omission of the characteristic of exhibited faith from the conversation about faith. In contrast to the focus of Apostle Paul on the saving power of faith, Apostle Jacob asks: “If someone says he has faith but does not have works: can faith save him?” (Jam. 2:14). And he himself answers: “Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (v. 17). True faith, not simply proclaimed faith demands deeds. “Since faith definitely finds expression in deeds, the presence of deeds testifies to the presence of faith”. The address of Apostle Jacob is directed more toward those who misunderstood the words of Paul about salvation by faith. “Holy Apostle Jacob emphasises that cold reasoning faith alone is not enough for salvation, for even “demons believe and tremble.” The meaning of the words of the Apostle Jacob is that true,
saving faith is closely connected with doing good deeds: faith prevails and precedes as the cause, and deeds follow as the effect”.
As it was said above, it cannot be assumed that Apostle Jacob refuted the teachings of Apostle Paul on the correlation of faith and works. Jacob objected to the dishonest reinterpretation of the words of Apostle Paul. Jacob himself agrees with Apostle Paul both on minor points – “dead works” (Heb. 6:1), is contrasted with “dead faith” (Jam. 2:17) – and in more serious analogies.
So, a very interesting coincidence (a confirmation that the Epistle of Apostle Jacob is a response to the Epistle to the Hebrews) can be traced through the two epistles. Apostle Paul raised the example of the feats of faith of Abraham and Rahab. Apostle Jacob also recalls them, but, as it would seem, in a different context. He says: “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? … Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way?” (Jam. 2:21, 25). That is, in the feat of both Abraham and Rahab, Apostle Jacob sees the feat of deeds. Is there a direct contradiction of the concept given by Apostle Paul, and his words that a person is saved by faith regardless of deeds? Isn’t this example with Abraham and Rahab cited in opposition to the words of Apostle Paul about their feat of faith? “It should be assumed that these words about salvation necessitating living, active faith were written by St. Jacob (James) precisely because many Jews misunderstood the words of Apostle Paul. Apostle Paul persistently preached to the Jews that since the coming of Christ the Saviour, ritual Mosaic Law had lost all meaning and that salvation requires faith in Christ the Saviour, and not the works of the Mosaic Law. Many Jews understood this idea in the sense of the unconditional denial in general of good deeds for salvation and the sufficiency of faith alone in the coming Messiah”. Apostle Jacob also opposed this false interpretation of the words of Apostle Paul.
According to Apostle Jacob, deeds testify to the presence of grace in man, which is faith. Faith achieves fulfilment through deeds. For him, faith is deeds. “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also” (Jam. 2:26). With these words, one can characterise the very principle of human salvation. Faith is the foundation of our salvation; it is the body. But it is dead without its imbuing spirit: active love. And neither one nor the other is used on its own.
In this way, Apostle Jacob places emphasis on faith and deeds. Undoubtedly, each person enters Christian life only through faith, and is justified regardless of what kind of life they led prior to their baptism. Justification is only granted by means of faith. But faith is not constant. Faith may grow, or may weaken, or even completely disappear. And, if such an analogy is possible, faith needs to be trained; and not by anything else, but by deeds in accordance with faith. There is such a close connection here: faith inspires a person to do good deeds, and deeds strengthen faith.
This was not only taught by Apostles Paul and Jacob. They conveyed their words by inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, their words are in complete agreement with the words of the Saviour. But He taught that “he who believes and is baptised will be saved” (Mark 16:16). But not only that. He also said: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord! Lord!’
shall enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in Heaven” (Matt. 7:21). These are the fundamental principles upon which the Apostles and the whole subsequent Church built their doctrine and life.
Thus, we can conclude that the Holy Church has always believed that faith in itself, unsupported by good deeds, cannot lead to perfection. And at the same time, deeds without faith are not saving. A good deed is only good insofar as it serves our union with God, insofar as it serves our acquisition of grace; virtues are not a goal, but a means of our transfiguration