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Works are Necessary for One's Salvation

A Letter to a Layman

by St. Macarius of Optina

I set forth my poor judgment not from my own meager understanding, but—hoping in the God of wisdom and Lord, Who grants speech even to irrational beasts for the benefit of His people—I set it forth from His word and from the writings of the God-inspired Fathers, who after an active life left us their teaching as guidance.

Faith is the foundation of all good deeds, and without faith it is impossible to please the Lord (Heb. 11:6). She is the gift of God (cf. Mark 16:16; Matt. 28:19-20).

The Holy Apostle James teaches: What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works, can faith save him?... Faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.... For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also (James 2:14,17,26).

For our salvation one needs not simply faith alone, but works also. The words of the Apostle Paul: By the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified (Romans 3:20) refer to the works of the Old Testament laws and not to the new commandments of grace.

The reasoning that justification is obtained by faith alone without works is Lutheran, heterodox.

But he who trusts in his own works even with faith errs.

After baptism it is without fail necessary to keep God's commandments, by which the grace given at baptism is preserved and, to the measure of one's proficiency in the commandments, is increased.

Having transgressed the commandments, by repentance one again acquires grace. All this acts through faith, but without faith one could not perform deeds of repentance.

In every case both faith and deeds are involved.

But one must not think that one's deeds merit salvation: the merits of the Savior afford us this.

One must do good deeds but not place hope in them. To place hope in one's deeds is a sign of self-reliance. The Lord does not always grant us strength to perform good deeds, but rather allows the passions to be strengthened in us so that we might acknowledge our weakness and humble ourselves before God, remembering God's commandment: Whenever you do what has been commanded you, say we are unprofitable servants,for we have done that which it was our duty to do (Luke 17:10). Read in Volume One of The Philokalia the book by St. Mark the Ascetic, "On Those Who Think that They are Made Righteous by Works" (Chapters 1-7, 11-24).

Knowing that deeds are necessary for salvation and striving to perform them, one finds no strength in oneself, one is conquered by the passions, one is troubled and perplexed as to what to do. Of course, placing one's hope in God and on the prayers of those who pleased Him can help much in the work of our salvation, but becoming troubled at one's fall proceeds from spiritual pride. The evil spirits oppose our salvation: our adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour (I Peter 5:8).

"If you love true knowledge, devote yourself to the ascetic life, for mere theoretical knowledge puffs up a man" (St. Mark the Ascetic).*

Our warfare is not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers and against the world rulers of darkness of this age and against spiritual wickedness in the under heavens (Eph. 6:12).

Fighting with such foes, one must have a strong weapon against them, and that is humility, which they cannot oppose. But in doing battle with them without humility, self-reliantly and proudly, one will always be defeated. For this reason the Lord allows us to fall so that we might humble ourselves (see Homily 51 of St. Isaac the Syrian and also in Volume One of The Philokalia, Homilies 7 and 46 of St. John of Karpathos). A heart that is broken and humbled God will not despise (Ps. 50:17) and The Lord is nigh unto them that are of a contrite heart and He will save the humble of spirit (Ps. 33:18).

From Elder Macarius of Optina, by Fr. Leonid Kavelin (Platina, CA: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood Press, 1995), pp. 316-319.

An Excerpt from On Those who Think that They are Made Righteous by Works: Two Hundred and Twenty-Six Texts

by St. Mark the Ascetic

1. In the texts which follow, the beliefs of those in error will be refuted by those whose faith is well founded and who know the truth.

2. Wishing to show that to fulfil every commandment is a duty, whereas sonship is a gift given to men through His own Blood, the Lord said: 'When you have done all that is commanded you, say: "We are useless servants: we have only done what was our duty"' (Luke 17:10). Thus the kingdom of heaven is not a reward for works, but a gift of grace prepared by the Master for his faithful servants.

3. 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.

4. 'Christ died on account of our sins in accordance with the Scriptures' (I Cor. 15:3); and to those who serve Him well He gives freedom. 'Well done, good and faithful servant,' He says, 'you have been faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many: enter into the joy of your Lord' (Matt. 25: 21).

5. He who relies on theoretical knowledge alone is not yet a faithful servant: a faithful servant is one who expresses his faith in things Christ through obedience to His commandments.

6. He who honours the Lord does what the Lord bids. When he sins or is disobedient, he patiently accepts what comes as something he deserves.

7. If you love true knowledge, devote yourself to the ascetic life; for mere theoretical, knowledge puffs a man up (cf. I Cor. 8:1).

. . .

11. Those who, because of the rigour of their own ascetic practice, despise the less zealous, think that they are made righteous by physical works. But we are even more foolish if we rely on theoretical knowledge and disparage the ignorant.

12. Even though knowledge is true, it is still not firmly established if unaccompanied by works. For everything is established by being put into practice.

13. Often our knowledge becomes darkened because we fail to put things into practice. For when we have totally neglected to practise something, our memory of it will gradually disappear. [For the preceding two instructions cf. James 1:22-24]

14. For this reason Scripture urges us to acquire the knowledge of God, so that through our works we may serve Him rightly.

15. When we fulfil the commandments in our outward actions, we receive from the Lord what is appropriate; but any real benefit we gain depends on our inward intention.

16. If we want to do something but cannot, then before God, who knows our hearts, it is as if we have done it. This is true whether the intended action is good or bad.

17. The intellect does many good and bad things without the body, whereas the body can do neither good nor evil without the intellect. This is because the law of freedom applies to what happens before we act.

18. Some without fulfilling the commandments think that they possess true faith. Others fulfil the commandments and then expect the Kingdom as a reward due to them. Both are mistaken.

19. A master is under no obligation to reward his slaves; on the other hand, those who do not serve him well are not given their freedom.

20. If 'Christ died on our account in accordance with the Scriptures' (Rom. 5:8; 1 Cor. I5: 3), and we do not 'live for ourselves', but 'for Him who died and rose' on our account (2 Cor. 5:15), it is clear that we are debtors to Christ to serve Him till our death. How then can we regard sonship as something which is our due?

21. Christ is Master by virtue of His own essence and Master by virtue of His incarnate life. For He creates man from nothing, and through His own Blood redeems him when dead in sin; and to those who believe in Him He has given His grace.

22. When Scripture says 'He will reward every man according to his works' (Matt. 16:27), do not imagine that works in themselves merit either hell or the kingdom. On the contrary, Christ rewards each man according to whether his works are done with faith or without faith in Himself; and He is not a dealer bound by contract, but God our Creator and Redeemer.

2 3. We who have received baptism offer good works, not by way of repayment, but to preserve the purity given to us.

24. Every good work which we perform through our own natural powers causes us to refrain from the corresponding sin; but without grace it cannot contribute to our sanctification.

From The Philokalia, vol. 1 (London: Faber & Faber, 1979), pp. 125-127.