“For by grace you have been saved through faith, not by works, lest any man boast.” So we heard in today’s epistle. This statement, on the surface appears simple and yet it defines the whole nature and purpose of our Christian life. The three elements described here, grace, faith and works, all interact together for our salvation; all three elements are necessary, we cannot do with only one or two – but all three together. Let us learn then a little bit about these three elements and how they work together since they are so necessary for our salvation.
First it will be profitable to look at what our salvation actually is. When we talk about “our salvation” or “being saved” – what is it that we mean? The answer to this is given to us by our Lord in a clear and wonderful demonstration of life beyond the world. This demonstration is the Transfiguration (preobrazheniye) of our Lord. The three apostles, Peter, James and John were granted a vision of our Lord appearing as a heavenly man in the company of the saints. This is not only a demonstration of His glory and His divinity, but it is also a picture of our hope, our destiny, our salvation. We too shall participate in His glory, we too shall shine with the divine light, as did He, we too shall be transformed in such a manner. This is our salvation, the transformation, the transfiguration of our own being by being filled with the grace and light of the divine energies. In this transformation we shall fully participate in the life of Christ and be united with Him.
How then do faith and grace and works contribute to this great salvation? First we need faith – that is our belief. God reveals to us the path of salvation, however, we must first embrace that path and by faith set our feet on that path. The working out of this is of course when we come into the Church through baptism and chrismation and then begin to live the life of the Church. In doing this we exercise our faith – that is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen. We hope for our salvation, but we do not yet see it, for we stand only at the beginning of the path. Acting on faith, we enter into the Church and live according to her precepts, believing that this is indeed the path which will lead us to our salvation.
Having accepted on faith this path, now we are faced by the many “works” that are prescribed by the Church. We are instructed to pray, to fast, to give alms, to repent, to be merciful, to live moral and righteous lives, to deny ourselves, … to do all kinds of things. There are commandments to follow – the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes, the Law of God and so on. All these things to do are in fact “works”. This path of salvation is full of works – and yet we heard the Apostle say that our salvation is not of works. What are all these works for then? St Seraphim related to his disciple, “As for fasts, and vigils, and prayer, and almsgiving, and every good deed done for Christ’s sake, they are only the means for acquiring the Holy Spirit of God.” Here is the first indication of the place of works – they are the means by which we acquire the Holy Spirit – they are the means by which the grace of God finds a home within our souls. To further explain, St Seraphim continues, “ God the Word, the God-Man, our Lord Jesus Christ, compares our life with a market, and the work of our life on earth He calls trading, and says to us all: ‘Trade till I come (Lk 19:13), redeeming the time, because the days are evil (Eph 5:16)’, that is to say, make the most of your time for getting heavenly blessings through earthly goods. Earthly goods are good works done for Christ’s sake and conferring on us the grace of the All-Holy Spirit.” From this it is clear, works by themselves are of little value for our salvation for they are “earthly”, however, the works bring to us the transforming grace of the All-Holy Spirit. So indeed the works are not our salvation, rather it is the grace that the works gain for us which accomplishes our salvation.
Grace is the gift of God, it is not the “natural” result of works, but rather God uses our works to bestow His grace on us. His grace is planted in our hearts, like the seed of the sower of which hear in the parable, and there it rests, growing and spreading in accordance with our cooperation with its actions. Like the leaven hidden the lump of dough, that grace spreads throughout our whole being and begins the work of our transformation. St Seraphim, in speaking about the effects of grace, describes grace as the light and warmth of the Holy Spirit. It is light in that it enlightens the soul, opening our understanding and the eyes of the heart to perceive the presence of God, to hear His voice and comprehend His Truth. It is the warmth of love for God and for our neighbor – a warmth so great that we are enabled even to love our enemies. This grace is the light of Tabor, the light that shone so brightly from our Lord at His transfiguration that the apostles fell on their faces to the ground. This same light of grace was evident on the face of the Prophet Moses when he descended from Mt Sinai having spoken with God and taking from His hand the tablets of stone inscribed with the Ten Commandments. This same light of grace was seen millennia later in the face of St Seraphim as he spoke with his spiritual son. “Then Fr Seraphim took me very firmly by the shoulders and said: ‘We are both in the Spirit of God now, my dear. Why don’t you look at me?’ I replied: ‘I cannot look Batiushka, because lightning is flashing from your eyes. Your face has become brighter than the sun, and my eyes ache with pain.’ I glanced at his face and there came over me an even greater reverent awe. Imagine in the center of the sun, in the dazzling light of its midday rays, the face of a man talking to you. You see the movement of his lips and the changing expression of his eyes, you hear his voice, you feel someone holding your shoulders; yet you do not see his hands, you do not even see yourself or his figure, but only a blinding light spreading far around for several yards …” This visible light is only an outward evidence of the grace which abides in the hearts of the saints. The fathers teach us that this miraculous light of grace is indeed the uncreated energies of our God – and by the presence of that grace in us, we are transformed, transfigured and we shine with the uncreated light of Christ and are united with God Himself, through grace participating in His life.
Thus we are saved, we are transformed into the image and likeness of God, we are fully united with Him and His uncreated energies fill us. This is our salvation, this is the action of grace in our lives. We approach the path of salvation with faith, and we walk along this path in our works – and we are imbued with the grace of God and are changed and transformed into His image and likeness. “By grace you are saved through faith.”