Friday, 8 November 2013

A Russian Orthodox Prayer for Salvation by Faith and Not Works

Here is a beautiful prayer from the Russian Orthodox tradition for salvation by grace through faith in Christ and not by works :

"O my plenteously-merciful and all-merciful God, Lord Jesus Christ, through Thy great love Thou didst come down and become incarnate so that Thou mightest save all. And again, O Saviour, save me by Thy grace, I pray Thee. For if Thou shouldst save me for my works, this would not be grace or a gift, but rather a duty; yea, Thou who art great in compassion and ineffable in mercy. "For he that believeth in me," Thou hast said, O my Christ, "shall live and never see death." If then, faith in Thee saveth the desperate, behold, I believe, save me, for Thou art my God and Creator. Let faith instead of works be imputed to me, O my God, for Thou wilt find no works which could justify me. But may my faith suffice instead of all works."

8th Prayer for the Morning, Prayer Book, Holy Trinity Monastery (Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia), Jordanville NY, 1979.

Now of course I can't resist a bit of theological commentary, my virtual glosses on the margins of the prayer book, if you will. Regarding the second last line, as a Lutheran I would rather pray "let Christ's righteousness instead of my works be imputed to me, O my God". And one must be careful not to regard faith itself as a meritorious work: "my faith suffices instead of all works" not because it is meritorious but because by it, as by an instrument, I receive both the benefits of Christ's death - chiefly the forgiveness of sins - and the merits of His righteousness. Orthodoxy has a weak doctrine of original sin and consequently a more positive theological anthropology than the Lutherans or indeed the Roman Catholics. The prayer avoids this error if by asking that faith be "imputed" it means faith is given by God (it would be interesting to have the original Russian version to follow this up). But with those caveats this prayer is a fine example of what the  Lutheran theologian Francis Pieper called a "felicitous inconsistency", whereby one who formally adheres to doctrinal error (in Pieper's view it was usually Calvinists or Romanists) yet notwithstanding that error apprehends the true Gospel and trusts in Christ to their salvation.

The doctrinal error in the case of the Orthodox is the belief that love and good works are a contributory factor in our salvation, a belief which finds expression in the Longer Catechism of the Orthodox Catholic Eastern Church (Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow, 1823), a standard among Orthodox catechisms : "Q482. Is not faith alone enough for a Christian, without love and good works ? No; for faith without love and good works is inactive and dead, and so can not lead to eternal life." Of course, this can be understood in the orthodox sense in which true faith is indeed always active in works of love, as the Apostles James and John and Luther (!) teach, but the Orthodox, in my experience, always take an anti-Reformation stance on this question and teach that good works are formally necessary for our salvation and contribute something to it. This position approaches the Roman Catholic teaching of fides caritate formata, wherein faith must be formed by love if it is to be salvific.*

To the theologically uninitiated, this may sound like splitting hairs, but the integrity of the proclamation of the Gospel depends upon the exclusion of works from the sinner's justification. This is why the Apostle Paul could write so forcefully to the Galatian Christians, whose salvation was placed on the line by their return to a reliance on works of the law as necessary to salvation: "You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified.  I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?  Have you experienced so much in vain—if it really was in vain? So again I ask, does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard? So also Abraham “believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness" Galatians 3:1-6.

* This is the basis of the Roman objection to the term "faith alone" and is something the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification didn't resolve (the curious RC Annex to the document notwithstanding)...and indeed couldn't without the Roman Catholics giving up the Council of Trent, which remains their authoritative doctrine on the matters in dispute during and since the Reformation. The Lutheran dialogue partners erred grievously and betrayed the Lutheran Reformation when they stated that the Lutheran understanding of faith includes hope and love as the Roman Catholics understand them.  


Damo said...

Interesting and quite intriguing is the Russian orthodox, funnily enough while at the Gabba yesterday I walked past the Orthodox Church just down from the German club, and went in for a look, and had a kind of surreal encounter,sufice to say God is there.and P/S I only had 3 Beers ,LOL

The Blogger Formerly Known As Lvka said...

The prayer you mentioned is characterized by meekness, sorrow, and repentance, to which God responds with love, mercy, kindness, and forgiveness. Everything outside this paradigm is un-Orthodox, even if the words being used are the same. As our Latin forefathers used to say, non idem est si duo dicunt idem. It is not the same if two people say the same thing: the Orthodox and the Catholic, the Orthodox and the Protestant. For instance, the father of the demonized child said to Christ: "I believe Lord, help my unbelief". So how was he "saved by faith", then ? Which is why the most common response in the Orthodox Liturgy is "Lord have mercy". Since there is no other logical reason for why God either is or should be hearing our prayers and supplications. As the Qur'an says at the beginning of each Sura: "In the Name of God, the benevolent, the merciful". But no, the Orthodox are not Muslim either, just in case you were wondering.

Acroamaticus said...

You have it the wrong way around:
God's love and grace in Christ precedes and is the basis for the sinner's repentance. If the sinner did not know that God was graciously disposed towards him in Christ, he would have no reason to meekly turn to God.

Regarding the father of the demonised child (Mark 9:24), the man clearly had faith, else why did he bring his boy to Jesus? Yet he struggled with doubts. That is the existential situation of many Christians - an inner struggle between faith and doubt - but thankfully our salvation is not dependent on the size or strength of our faith but on the merit of Christ.