From the title alone it is clear that this has the potential be a controversial article. Anytime one mentions the dreaded phrase “grace and works” thoughts of endless dispute swirl in one’s head at a pace that can only bring theological vertigo before the conversation even begins. Unless one is poised to duke it out, knowing ahead of time that no resolution will come of it, one’s psychological well being is best served by avoiding it altogether. I encountered this dizzying subject full force when working through my graduate studies in theology. Indeed, there are few subjects more on the mind of an evangelical Protestant theology student (like me at the time) than figuring out the proper balance between these two, seemingly, opposite poles of the Christian life.
Rewinding to the day I first received Christ at the age of 15, I knew that God had called me to a life of obedience to Him. But this obedience never seemed to me a burden, or some extra load to carry in a world of “loads” already impossible to lift. The Christian life, which many perceive as a moralistic prison, was for me similar to how G.K. Chesterton described his experience with Catholicism: “Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls; but they are the walls of a playground.” It took years of church indoctrination for me to develop this sense of tension between grace and works. It wasn’t until I had been in the church scene for many years before I began perceiving grace to be something totally opposite than what it really is. Let me explain.
For me, grace was not only something that relieved me from worrying about whether or not I was pleasing to God, it was a gift that made obeying Christ an act of sedition against grace. The verses that were drilled into my head early on in my walk was Romans 11:6, “And if by grace, then it is no longer of works; otherwise grace is no longer grace.,” and Galatians 5:4, “You who attempt to be justified by law have become estranged from Christ; you have fallen from grace.”
With these verses (and a few others) I was convinced that following Christ amounted to an exercise of mental assent to ‘correct’ doctrines ‘about’ God. Hence, faith itself was merely abstract belief and did not require corresponding action; grace actually forbade it. I was stuck in a system of thought which Bonhoeffer brilliantly described when he said: “We are excusing ourselves from single-minded obedience to the word of Jesus on the pretext of legalism and a supposed preference for an obedience ‘in faith.’” In short, to obey Christ was synonymous with falling from grace.
It never dawned on me that my understanding of faith and grace was as backwards as it could get: The gift that Christ won for me on the cross was not the grace to follow Him, but the grace to not follow Him; the gift to go on living life as I was already planning on living, having all of my sins excused beforehand.
To God be all the glory, I never fully believed this devilish BS!
There was always this inner war between treating the grace of God as a ‘get-out-of-hell-free card’ and walking in loving obedience to His words. This war came to an end, surprisingly not when I crossed over to Orthodoxy, but just beforehand thanks to the writings of two irritated Lutherans—Soren Kierkegaard and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. These two helped me to understand the grace of God, not as a dismissal from obeying Christ, but as the gift of empowerment TO obey Christ – the actual indwelling gift of Christ’s presence in my life. Eastern Orthodoxy reinforced this understanding with 2000 years of Church Tradition testifying to its truth. This is another major reason why I couldn’t resist coming to Orthodoxy. While I was shadow boxing on my own with Christian doctrine and discipline in “independent Christianity,” the match had been decidedly won centuries ago by my Orthodox brothers and sisters.
Without God’s grace one could never, not if she lived 1000 years, become a disciple of Christ. Christ’s words are infinitely more impossible to keep than the Mosaic law. Without the grace of Christ we have no chance in following Him! Now that we have the empowerment to be a disciple of Christ there is indeed no pretense of inability (only of unwillingness), no burying the “talent” in the ground and expecting God to “reap where He hasn’t sown” (Matt 25:14-30), the only response that corresponds with the authentic gift of grace is a life lived unto Christ.
(I have not ventured to supply any Scriptures which teach this empowering nature of grace, primarily because there are so many that it is difficult to know where to begin and which to highlight. In addition, I could not possibly attempt a full apologetic based on Orthodox teaching for two reasons: (1) I’m too green in Orthodoxy to do so, and (2) I don’t have the time to write a thesis. So, here are a few Scriptures for those interested in a more broad study of the subject. Cheers.)
Matt 25:14-30; Acts 3:26; 2 Tim 2:1, 2:19; Heb 12:14-16; Rom 1:5, 5:6, 16:26; James 2:22; 1 Cor 3:9, 3:10, 4:20; Jude 1:4