Back to Basics Theology - Part 5
In the name of the Father, the Son and The Holy Spirit, One God, Amen.
Glory be to the Father to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, both now and to the ages of all ages, Amen.
It is a pleasure to see everyone in the church this morning in this amazing day of The Lord where the sun is shining, and that’s usually good for everyone’s mood, because people feel more cheerful, except it is still cold! We are being deceived into thinking that it is almost summer, but we are getting there. Hopefully things will start getting better from here.
At the beginning of the holly (00:42) we started a series entitled “Back to Basics”. This is information, theology, spirituality, that is essential for each and every Orthodox Christian. It is not optional to have knowledge of these things, because these form the foundation of our faith. So many times we focus on other spiritual aspect, which is also very important, but speaking about theology is also spiritual and it is essential for the knowledge of our own salvation. We must know at all times and be ready to answer to those who ask us about the reasons for our hope.
So, we spoke about the Theology, the doctrine of God, The existence of God. We spoke about our faith concerning The Holy Trinity, we spoke about Christology: The Doctrine of Christ. What do we believe Christ is, and then last week we spoke about Soteriology, and again, the word Soter, if you are aware in the holy week and sometimes in the midnight praises, we say (01:49), “My good Savior”, so the word basically means salvation. So, The Doctrine of Salvation; what do we as Orthodox Christians believe concerning salvation.
We also spoke a little bit about the human nature, or The Original Sin, and we will continue a little bit also along with this topic, concerning human nature, but we will focus more on the concept of grace; The Doctrine of Grace. What do we believe Grace is, in the Orthodox understanding?
Let me just give you a little heads-up of the points that we will be covering in today’s discussion: We will have an introduction, and then I want to give some analogies of grace. How do we understand the concept of grace with like, everyday life issues. We will speak about grace as a free gift, and also grace and human free-will, then we will move on grace and work; how they are related together, and then we will mention and discuss one of the biggest controversies in the history of the early church fathers concerning grace, which is The Pelegian Controversy, and then we will draw a conclusion.
A couple of years ago, as I was speaking with a you, she told me the following story: She said that she went into big test, like a mid-test or exam. Usually, by nature, she is a good student. She is an A student. But she knew when she came out of this particular exam that she had done a couple of questions that were completely wrong. She discovered this right after, and she knew that she solved these questions wrong. Now, as she came out, she was very upset, that how can she solve these problems wrong, and she was afraid of her parents, how are they going to react, etc…but she kept a strong face. On the day that she got back the test, she found that she got Perfect, although she knew that she had made some mistakes. Being honest, she went up to the teacher, and the teacher told her “yes, it is my mistake. Now I realize that you have done some mistakes on the test, but it was my mistake, because I didn’t see them, so I will still give you a hundred percent on your exam”, but she told him, no, I’m sorry; I have done some mistakes, I don’t deserve a hundred percent. But the teacher said, you know, I will still give you a hundred percent. That is OK, don’t worry about it. Then she came to me and said: did I do the right thing or not? Should I have gone up to the teacher? I said it is good that you went up to the teacher and you told her that there was some mistakes. And she said, but the teacher insisted on giving me a hundred percent, and I feel bad for this. I said “Just take it and run” (laughing). She said, but I feel bad because I did some mistakes. I said, if the teacher said that you deserve a hundred percent, just be quiet and be thankful.
In a way, this is the meaning of grace. This is how we understand grace. It is not that we deserve perfection, because we have our own faults and our own mistakes, but it is God’s grace that covers our mistakes. It is the blood of Christ that covers our mistakes, because, no human being to reach heaven on their own. No one! And no one is able to redeem us except through the blood of Christ. This is how God looks at us now; not on our own terms. Not at our own terms, not because of our faults and mistakes, but it is through salvation, through the blood of Christ, through his grace that we are saved and that we are redeemed.
The word Grace comes from the Greek word Hares. And the word Hares is translated in many different ways. It could be translated as Grace, but it also (06:07) the meaning of thankfulness, kindness, mercy, goodwill. Also, it is a special manifestation of the divine presence or activity or power of glory. Because even in the first chapter of the gospel of St John, he speaks about the manifestation of Christ as grace above grace, right? as grace above grace. So, again, it could be a divine manifestation or power or glory. It is a favor or expression of kindness, or gift or a blessing.
In the contemporary manner, we understand glory as an unmerited or undeserving gift. It is because of God’s nature that He gives to us these gifts. He doesn’t go out of His way. Just like we say that God is a loving God, or God is love by nature, also God is graceful by nature. He has a nature that just wants to give all the time, without any kind of reservations.
The word Hares, or the concept of grace was mentioned more than 150 times in the entire Bible, in both of its Testaments, but in particular 120 times in The New Times, and only in the epistles of St Paul, more than 100times. So, you can see more and more focus, you know, when you want to measure the population by color, and you have like a lighter color, and then darker color, until the color gets very dark, which means, there is a huge population, let’s say, in metropolitan areas, so if we look at the spread of grace, we find that God is focusing, of course it is in His nature, but it is manifested through the epistles of St Paul so much, and if you want to focus even more, you will look at the epistles of St Paul to the Romans as well as to the Galatians, and this is where he mentions so much the word Hares, or the word Grace with all its following derivatives.
Let me give you very quickly three analogies on how to understand God’s grace. Again, grace is one of those topics that, sometimes because we don’t really understand it, we shy away from it. We are afraid of heresy, we are afraid to fall in to wrongful teachings, so we kind of just stay away from it, just to be on the safe side. But after knowing that The Holy Scriptures focus so much on (08:33) gracious nature, we can no longer hide away from this topic, because it is so essential to our salvation, and it is so essential to our spiritual life, and it is so essential to our relationship to our God and our creator.
How to understand the concept of Grace through these three very quick analogies?
The first one is the sunshine and the rain. Again, you see that in the building that we are in now, that there are certain windows. Automatically, when you open the curtains, you find that the sunshine will come in. This is exactly what God’s grace is. God will not look upon the individuals, let’s say, in this place or in any other place, and say; “If they are good, I will let the sunshine on them, and if they are bad, I will hide it away from them.” If we are willing to open the curtains, automatically the sunshine will come in. This is what our Lord said in Mathew 5:45: “For He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends the rain on the just and on the unjust”. God does not discriminate, but because of His nature, because of His gracious nature, He gives His love, and He wants to provide the salvation for all the world without any partition.
We can also understand God’s grace as a flowing river. The river will flow regardless of who comes and benefits from it. The fish may have life in that river, individuals may come and go fishing or swim in the river or enjoy their time, and all this doesn’t matter, because it is part of the nature of the river to give and to flow and to provide shelter for all kinds of marine animals and humans, etc… Thus we can refer to the river of living water.
In the book of Revelations towards its end, in chapter 22, John saw this amazing vision. And he said that God showed him: “And he showed God a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding from the throne of God and of the lamb. In the middle of the street and on either side of the river was the tree of life which bore twelve fruits”.
Again, you see, to its sides there is a tree. And this is who God is, and the tree is bearing fruits, and this fruit is meant to be used and given out to the people.
The third analogy concerns a tree and its shade. “Like an apple tree among the trees of the woods, so is my beloved among the sons. I sat down in her shade with grate the light and his fruit was sweet to my taste”- The book Songs of Solomon 2:3.
By nature, a tree provides shade for whoever comes to take refuge underneath it. It will not discriminate. By nature it is giving, it is providing shade, and this is exactly what God’s Grace is; always giving, and always providing, regardless of who and what is the condition of that individual or even of the creature that is going to take shade underneath His loving and merciful arms.
The Holy Scriptures speak to us concerning Grace that it is a free gift. It is a free gift. It is an unmerited gift, so it doesn’t… it is unconditional. It doesn’t depend… God has not provided any conditions for giving us His grace. It is just a free gift by nature. It is like what we said a couple of weeks ago concerning going on a vacation and God booking the vacation for you. Not because you are good or you are bad, but because by nature he is a Loving and a Giving God.
This is exactly what it is.
The Scriptures, and especially in the Epistles of St Paul and also some in St Peter, he speaks about Grace as a free gift, and here is what he says; let me quote for you four verses;
From Romans 3:23-26 he says the following: “For all have sinned and fall short of the Glory of God. Being justified freely by His Grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by his blood through faith, to demonstrate his righteousness because in his forbearance God has passed over the sins that were previously committed. To demonstrate at the present time his righteousness, that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus Christ”.
God is telling us, if we have; He has already giving us His Grace, but we have to accept this Grace by our own free-will. In order to have faith in Jesus Christ, Our Lord, we will be able to accept and live in this grace.
The sun is shining outside, as you can see, and the rays, the sun rays are willing to come in. But when we came in this morning, we opened the curtains; we allowed ourselves to enjoy this Grace. Because, if we had these curtains closed, we would not have had any sunrays as you can see. Again, God’s free gift He is ready to justify and to purify, but He is asking us to have faith in Him and this is our call that we will contribute to it.
So we are justified by His Grace, also we are saved by His Grace, as he mentions in Ephesians 2, but again, always there was Grace. Even though God is providing it, there is always a personal choice that I have to make.
He says;”For by Grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is a gift by God. Not of works, less anyone should boast…” I am not going to says; “I worked so hard to attain my salvation”, no, but it is through God’s Grace. And it is through the sending of His son in order to die for us, and me believing in that part. “…for we are His workmanship created in Jesus Christ for good works which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them”.
We are also “righteous by Grace”.
What is the meaning of the word “righteous”? To be righteous means to be accepted in the presence of God as a holy person. Because, no one could attain this righteousness, because it became part of our nature to fall into various sins. But we could only be deemed righteous through the blood of Christ.
In Romans 5:17 he says:”For if by one man’s offence death rained through the one, much more those who received abundance of grace and the gift of righteousness will rain in life through one who is Jesus Christ”.
So, sin had entered into the world through the one human being who has had the sin of our forefathers, but we inherited that sinful nature, but we have received the opposite of that: righteousness by God’s Grace, through the blood of Christ our Lord.
Finally, we receive the spiritual gifts that we conduct our lives with, also through God’s Grace.
In I Peter 4:10 he says: “As each one has received a gift, minister to one another, as good stewards of the (16:34) Grace of God.” Again, gifts are related to the Grace of God, because we did not work for our talents and our gifts, they were merely handed to us as gifts from God.
What about Grace and human’s free will?
God wants us all to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. God’s Grace wants to abound on the whole creation, not only on human beings. He takes care even of the sparrows and the birds, and the insects, and any kinds of animals or vegetations, and He sustains the whole world through His grace. At the same time, we have to admit the real presence of sin in the world that we live in today. This is why Grace will not work without my personal free-will and my personal choice. In several of The Lord’s miracles, he went out to the individual and said, “Do you want to be made well?” as in John 5:6.
There is an option! We have an option! God will not save us without our own personal free-will and participation in it.
Also, in Acts 15:1 in the speech of St Steffen, he condemned the Hebrew children that “You always resist The Holy Spirit”.
Even though The Holy Spirit wants to come into my life and change, and to renew, some of us may shun him “Thanks, but no thanks. We are not interested”.
St Paul said also in I Thessalonians 5:19 “Do no quench The Spirit”, and also in I Corinthians 15:10… Even though St Paul spoke so much about the Grace of God, yet he claimed that he labored more abundantly. He did his part in order to abide in Christ and to live in His Grace.
Grace and good works is an issue that quite often raises some interesting discussions between different denominations and people. Some people go to one of the two extremes. They say “It is only by Grace. I am saved only by Grace”. Now, the word “Only” is never mentioned in The Scriptures. Neither is it part of the heritage of the church. Yes, there are verses that says… for example Ephesians 2:8 etc, that we speak about salvation as part of our… of Grace as part of our Salvation, but only speak about faith, and speak about how important abiding in Christ is, all the days of our lives until the last moment that we leave this earth, and this will happen through being part… a branch in the vine; never separating myself from this branch, as we spoke last night about The Lord when He said “I am the true vine”. And this will happen through the holly mysteries and the sacraments and the communion and the confessions, and the righteous life of service etc…
Therefore, there are two extremes; some people will say “Only by Grace”, and others will say “Only by works”. Neither of them is right, because it is the combination of both.
St Paul speaks a lot about the Grace of God, especially in his epistle to the Galatians. When we investigate more and understand this epistle, why it was written, we find that there were certain Jewish teachers who were coming from Jerusalem, who were sent by the Mother Church or the Synagogue in Jerusalem, and they were speaking about… or they were called the Judaisers.
Who were the Judaisers?
They were teachers who came from the Jewish heritage, going to preach to the Gentiles in Galatia and minor Asia, and telling them: “Unless you become Jewish first and observe The Law and observe the Sabbath and be circumcised and follow all the commandments of The Law, you canot be Christians”, so they are putting a stumbling block in front of these new converts into the faith, telling them, you need to be circumcised, you need to observe the Sabbath… so, St Paul started to speak to them “It is not through the works of The Law. It is not through circumcision, it is not through keeping the Sabbath; it is through God’s Grace that He has accepted both the gentile and the Jew, because now there is no distinction whatsoever between a gentile and a Jew”.
This is why he spoke about the concept of Grace and having faith in The Lord Jesus Christ, not merely relaying on the works of The Law. However, at the same time, he never refused the importance and the significance of my own participation, or acceptance to God’s word and to His Salvation.
That was the problem and the reason why St Paul spoke so much, because those people relied more and said “Why should you believe in Jesus? What is so important about Jesus? We are already children of Abraham; we shouldn’t go all the way to believing in Jesus. Maybe he was a good man, but we have something more in our heritage as children of Abraham”, and this is why St Paul spoke over and over about the importance and the significance of believing in The Lord Jesus, and related it to salvation through Grace; not having so much stress on our own works, because salvation will not come through the works of the Law, but through faith in Jesus Christ.
In Galatians 2:16,21 he says the following:
“Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law, but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we may be justified by faith in Christ, and not by the works of the Law, for by the works of The Law, no flesh shall be justified.”
And he continues in verse 21 by saying:
“I do not set aside the Grace of God, for if righteousness comes by The Law, then Christ died in vain”. He is telling them, if you merely rely on righteousness from The Law, from the writing of The Old Testament alone, without having Jesus Christ in this equation, then Jesus have died in vain, and my faith also is in vain. Through his teaching, he wanted to correct the understanding of the Judaisers, or what the Judaisers were teaching in Galatia and other places.
Grace as understood between Grace and… as understood in the church represents the unity of God’s giving nature and my own free-will in accepting it. We see three examples in The Old Testament, of Moses defeating Amalech. Two things were happening simultaneously; Moses was standing and raising his hand in prayer, while Joshua was fighting Amalech in the battlefield; a combination of both prayer, representing God’s Grace, and what Joshua was actually doing on the field.
Gideon defeating the Medianites, in the book of Judges chapter7. Gideon had thirty-two thousands. God told him, that’s too man! Whoever want to leave, let them leave. There were ten thousands left, He said “they are still too many”. At the end of the day, only three hundred were left. (24:28) Israel would claim that it is through its own strength that they had defeated the Medianites, and here God working only through the three hundred, and defeating the Medianites represents His Grace, while also the little effort that was made by the soldiers who were following Gideon this time represents their own personal free-will in accepting this Grace.
The same analogy goes for David defeating Goliath.
Now, I want to mention to you very quickly The Pelegian controversy that arose early in the fifth century, maybe around the year four hundred and five or something like that. Basically, it dealt with the whole concept of human nature , freedom of will, nature of sin, and the nature of Grace.
Pelegius taught at that time that God had created human beings and gave them the tools to be perfect and then left them alone. Basically, in his own understanding, Grace is The Law and the community and the fellowship, but God will not intervene in people’s lives; human lives. He will just give them the tools… just like, if you have a child and they want to build a little box of any sort, so the dad will go maybe to (26:01) and buy wood and nails and hammer and all the tools, and give it to the son and say “Son, have a blast, right? You have all the tools right there in front of you, and that’s it”.
Pelegius said that this was God’s work; He prepared salvation, He gave us the tools, He gave us the commandments and He basically left alone.
At that time, St Agustin rose up and said, no, this is not the concept as being taught in The Scriptures about the Grace of God; Not only did God give us the tool, but He also provides us the means, and He actually helps us to reach the levels in our spiritual growth, so God is still active in the lives of the people. He didn’t just give them the tools and left them alone, on their own.
There were different controversies and you can read about it more and about this subject in the website for the (27:05) www.suscopts.org, and you go to Orthodox Faith and you read about most of the topics that we have discussed together here, and you can read more about the Pelegian controversy.
Was it an issue concerning divine assistance to humanity, or is it just moral guidance? We understand as St Agustin has taught us that God is presently active in the lives of the faithful and helping them and assisting them. He didn’t just provide them the means and left them alone.
My favorite word: In conclusion! Right, you can breathe now! Finally! Never thought this word was gonna come up, eh? I intend to go on and on…
Anyways, in conclusion:
The topic of God’s Grace is an amazing spiritually enriching topic. We as a church, and as a congregation and as individual believers cannot avoid it. But we need to keep it in mind at all times, because God’s Grace is continuously knocking at the door and asking us to open, and if we open with our own personal free-will, God wants all to be save and to come to the knowledge of the truth. It is through His Grace that He has prepared for us salvation and remission of sins, when we didn’t even think about it, even before we were created, God thought about it.
Here I would like to mention a quick story which is entitled “Heaven’s Grocery store”.
Someone is meditating and saying: “I was walking down life’s highway a long time ago, and one day I saw a sign that read “Heaven’s Grocery Store”. As I got a little closer, the door came wide open, and when I came to myself, I was standing inside. I saw a host of angels. They were standing everywhere. One handed me a basket and said “My child, shop with care”.
Everything a Christian needed was in the grocery store, and if you couldn’t carry them, you could come back for more. First I got some Patience. Love was in the same row. Further down was Understanding. You need that wherever you go. I got a box of Wisdom, a bag or two of Faith. I couldn’t miss the Holy Spirit, for He was all over the place. I stopped to get some Strength and Courage to help me with the race. And though my basket was getting full, I remembered to get some Grace. I didn’t forget Salvation, so I tried to get enough of that, to save myself and others who are around me.
Then I stopped at the counter to pay the grocery bill, for I thought I had everything to do my Master’s will. As I went up the isle, I saw Prayer, and I just had to put that in, for I knew, when I would step outside, I would run into sin. Peace and Joy were plentiful. They were on the last shelf. Song and Praises were hanging near, so I just helped myself.
I asked the angel: “Now, how much do I owe?” He just smiled and said “Just take them wherever you go”.
Again, I smiled at him and said “How much do I really owe?”
The angel smiled again and said “My child, Jesus paid your bill a long time ago!””
This is our concept of God’s Love and His Grace and His continuous work in our lives.
One of the best verses that I really admire, when we speak of the concept of Grace, is this beautiful verse mentioned in II Corinthians 12:9. It concerns God giving us strength in the times of weakness.
As he said to St Paul, “My Grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in weakness”.
Some of us fight weakness. We don’t want to be weak. We want to be strong at all times. But sometimes, God allows us to go through these phases or stages in order to understand that we must fully rely on Him, and He is the source of all strength in our lives, that we may know Him, and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of his suffering being conformed to His death.
My beloved, this topic is an amazing and a long topic, and I hope that we get more chances to meditate on it and to pray about it, that The Lord may give us strength to live in His Grace, to understand it and to fully comprehend the magnitude of His love towards all of humanity.
To Him Be glory forever and ever!