Faith and Works: A False Dicotomy

I have faced many challenges as I have sought to direct the roots of our faith, hope, and love as a Christian into the soil of the Holy Tradition of the “true faith” as the Divine Liturgy calls it. One of these challenges is realizing that I (many of us?) have somehow created dichotomies that are false. One of the most notorious is faith and works. It is a tough one because many of the giants of Christianity have based much of their preaching and teaching on it !! Yikes. How could I?? Now don’t get me wrong. I understand that not everyone in the Western Church believes that faith and works are “over against” one another. And, what is more, I have know for a fact that there are Eastern Christians who believe the dichotomy is real.

What is more, I have found the false dichotomy going both directions. So, for example, there are those who believe that faith is sufficient AND there are those who believe in a version of “works righteousness.” What is more, the misappropriation that has its expression throughout the Church.

So, I am not pointing the prophetic finger at anybody in particular. There is enough culpability to go around.

I received a short reflection on this false dichotomy in my email this morning. I know there are plenty of websites and blog sites that have postings that are more lengthy and perhaps more exhaustive (literally). But, I like Fr. Seraphim’s way of just getting straight to the point without a lot of fluff. He says it and then stops. Wow, what an idea !! The only thing I would challenge is his assumption that only the “Orthodox” embrace the union of faith and works and everyone else doesn’t. I am not “Orthodox” and I don’t embrace the dichotomy, for example. (Well, at least I am attempting to no longer embrace it or practice some form of it. Not that I have become perfectly immune to the tendency, but I press on.) And, I am sure that you don’t embrace the dichotomy (so, perhaps I am preaching to the choir). Nonetheless, with that small caveat having been registered, I wholeheartedly commend the reflection to you…


“Faith and Works”
By Priest Seraphim Holland 2013
St Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, McKinney, Texas

John 5:28-29 2nd Wednesday of Pascha, 2013

Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice,  (29)  And shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation.” [John 5:28-29]


We who are true Christians know that the way we live shows what we believe. The greatest heresy (meaning the most egregious to the soul) of our age is a relatively new one – that salvation is by faith alone. Those who espouse this heresy do not understand what faith is, and who its always present companion is. It is plain as day in the Scripture, as the Holy Apostle and brother of the Lord James says:

“But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.  (23)  For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass:  (24)  For he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was.  (25)  But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed.  (26)  If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man’s religion is vain” (James 1:22-26  )


“What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him?”  (James 2:14)


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?” (James 2:17-20)

If we understand faith to mean that we believe and live according to what we believe, and that faith and works cannot be separated, than I will agree that we can be saved by faith alone. However, The Holy Apostle makes a distinction between “faith” – that is – to espouse a belief in something, and “works” – to live according to faith.

Many modern Christians essentially believe that only believing in God saves, since of course:

“For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God:  (9)  Not of works, lest any man should boast.”  (Ephesians 2:8-9)

We who are Orthodox read “all” of Scripture. The very next words the Holy Apostle Paul writes to the Ephesians are:

“For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:10)

Christians have always understood the faith to be believing in God, and acting upon that belief. Only at the time of the Reformation was the terrible heresy of “Faith by works alone” concocted by the mind of Satan and distributed to those who value human reason too highly. This is a terrible tragedy for the soul, and I have seen people lost to the church because they could not grok (sic. [grasp?]) this concept.

It matters what you believe and it matters what you do! Let us work out our salvation with fear and trembling, always with confidence that God will fill our infirm vessel with grace, and magnify our feeble but sincere efforts. Source


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