What does it mean to be saved? How is this accomplished? These are the questions that are answered by the Holy Apostle Paul in his Epistle to the Ephesians that we read today. He begins by emphasizing that we are saved by grace and ends by recounting to us that our salvation consists of being restored once again to the destiny and purpose for which we were created. That restoration is accomplished not by anything that we do, but by the grace of God which fills us. Our only part in this process is to exercise the free will that God gave us and to embrace and cooperate with the working of that grace in us.
In the Church the primary visible act of that cooperation is our own baptism. “At holy baptism, we become living members of the Body of Christ, because we partake of the life of the Head of the Body which flows through it to all its members. We are united to Christ and (as we sing in the baptismal service) we have ‘put on Christ’.”(Archim. Zacharias, Hidden Man of the Heart) In this act, God pours out His grace upon us and we are rejoined to the source of life from which we were separated by sin. We are restored to our original purpose and place in creation. “In holy baptism, all the gifts of the Holy Spirit were given to us. In this we are no different from even the greatest saints: we received the same gifts as they did…” (Archim. Zacharias). It is necessary from this point on to exercise our free will and to act in accordance with our new state, rather than allow our old habits and the temptations of this world to drag us down again and cover over this grace with the grime of sin. We do this by choosing to live according to the life of Christ which is now our own.
The Apostle Paul states, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Eph 2:10) This means that “you have been created in Christ, O Christian; you became a new piece of workmanship, when the old man in you died in baptism. And as at the beginning of your creation you were brought from non-being in to being, so also now God has recreated you and brought you from a condition of doing evil to a condition of doing good. You have been created not to be lazy, but to work and walk everywhere doing good deeds: that is to say, to pass the whole course of your life doing this – not just two or three years, but the entire span of your years.”(St Theophylact) Now we see that good works are not the cause of our salvation, we are not saved because of them – rather they are the result of our salvation, we are saved into them. Prior to the action of grace joining us to the life of Christ, a man is unable to do any truly good works – that is all his works, no matter how good they might seem, have no spiritual life, no power to change the world. In order for any work to be truly “good” it must emanate from and be imbued with the life of Christ; it must be the means of spreading the grace of God throughout the world. Without Christ, any work – whether it appears good or evil – is dead and its only effect is to perpetuate the corruption of sin which infects the world.
Therefore in order to be a Christian, in order to truly work out our salvation, we must be constantly doing “good works” that is we must constantly be doing the work of God in the world. When we stray from this labor of doing the work of God, then we fall again into the mire of sin – we act no longer according to the Life and grace that has been given us, but rather we act according to our former corruption and death. Good works are not the means by which we are saved, they are the result of our salvation. If we are truly “in Christ” then we cannot help doing “good works” because it is in our nature.
Does this mean then that once we are baptized, that everything we do is “good” by definition. Certainly not, for we still have to exercise our free will, we still have to choose to follow Christ every moment of every day. When we choose to act apart from Christ, when we choose to elevate our own self will and self-interest to the place of prominence in our heart, then we cease to do “good works” and we fall again into “evil”. The only way out of this condition is to repent of our sins and to cry out to God to save us, just as when the Apostle Peter began to sink into the waves of the sea, he reached out his hands and called out “Lord Jesus, save me!”
When the Forerunner sent his disciples to Jesus to ask if He was indeed the Messiah, our Lord did not answer directly, but rather he said to them, “Go your way and tell John what things ye have seen and heard, how that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, and the dead are raised (and) to the poor the gospel is preached…” (Luke 7:22) When the disciples of John asked if He were the Messiah, the Lord pointed them to his works – for good works are the evidence of the presence of God in a man. Our Lord, also, upon recounting the great judgement at the end of the world tells us that those who will be saved are those who gave meat to the hungry and drink to the thirsty, who sheltered the stranger, clothed the naked, and visited those who were sick and in prison. (Matt 25: 34-36). Again, it is good works which are the evidence of God’s presence in us. If we are united to Christ, then we must do His works (not ours), live His life (not our own). In short we will be constantly occupied with doing good.
One might then ask, “How can I give sight to the blind or make the deaf hear, how can I heal the lame and cleanse the lepers? This is beyond my strength, I cannot do these things.” Indeed that is often the case, however, it is within our power for as Fr Zacharias said to us earlier, “In holy baptism, all the gifts of the Holy Spirit were given to us. In this we are no different from even the greatest saints…” By the “seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit” that is bestowed upon us at baptism, these things are indeed within our power – but that gift is buried beneath the grime of our self will and misuse of the life we have been given, that is, it is compromised by the weight of our own sins and in order for those gifts to be truly manifest, we must labor in repentance scraping off that accumulated grime that hides them. Even though such miraculous acts might be beyond our strength at this moment, there are still many things that we can do: we can feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, comfort the sick and visit the prisoner. These things are within our grasp and things that we can do every day. These are the things that should be “natural” for us for they are natural to the grace that has been given to us in baptism. It does not matter if we ourselves are hungry or thirsty or sick or homeless – still we are called to these good works, spreading the love and compassion of God abroad in the world. This is in this way that the life of Christ in which you participate is made manifest in you.
Brothers and sisters, remember who you are and remember to what you have been called. You are born again in baptism and have been restored to your original condition, having been reunited to the life of God. This has been accomplished in you by the action of the grace of God and you have received not only the new life in Christ, but also the seal of the Holy Spirit living in you. It is now your nature no longer to do evil, but to do good – to walk in the light and life of Christ. It is into this life that you are born by your baptism. Do not forget who you are – you are Christians, you share the life of Jesus Christ, you have received the grace of God so that you might manifest His love to the whole world.