Stanley S. Harakas is a former professor of theology at Holy Cross Creek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, Massachusetts. His most recent book is a collection of biblical reflections, Of Life and Salvation (Light & Life Publishing).
This article appeared in the Christian Century, February 26, 1997, p. 217, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Belief in the saving and redeeming work of Jesus Christ, in his incarnation and his teaching, guiding and redemptive ministries is the sine qua non of salvation.
Two themes dominate these Epistle and Gospel readings: faith and works. These inevitably lead to a third theme -- repentance. All are important in the spiritual reorientation fostered by our observance of Lent.
Unlike the theological controversies of past generations, these two passages serve not to contrast faith and works but to define and order them. They give specificity to the life of repentance and renewal as Christians move ever closer to the observance of the crucifixion of Christ on Good Friday and Jesus’ resurrection on the Sunday of Pascha.
The first part of the Epistle reading vividily describes the consequences of Jesus Christ’s redemptive work. By ourselves we are spiritually dead in sin and separated from the source of true life. Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection make us "alive" because we are no longer followers of the prince of this world; we are no longer children of wrath. But "even when we were dead through our trespasses," we were "made . . . alive together with Christ." None of this occurred through our own understandings, our own virtue or our own good deeds. "By grace you have been saved." We appropriate the redemptive work of Jesus Christ "through faith" because it comes about not by our own doing, "but is a gift of God."
Paul tells the Ephesian Christians that they are "God’s workmanship." But lest they understand the saving work of Jesus Christ to be a sort of magic that doesn’t require a response from them, he adds that good works are one of the purposes of those who have been redeemed through faith in Jesus Christ: "We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them" (Eph. 2:10 RSV).
Paul’s message: good works alone cannot save. Faith in Jesus Christ and his work of redemption, however, reveals to believers that God intends for them to do good works.
The appointed reading from the Gospel of John points dramatically to the crucifixion of Jesus ("so must the Son of Man be lifted up") and to faith as the key to the door of salvation ("that whoever believes in him may have eternal life"). The graciousness of God’s saving work in Jesus Christ is summarized in the familiar passage John 3:16, which affirms that out of love for humanity and the world the Father sent the second person ‘of the Holy Trinity, the Son, to live, teach, heal, die and be resurrected for humanity’s salvation.
Belief is critical. "He who believes in him is not condemned." But "he who does not believe is condemned already." Why? "Because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God." Again, belief in the saving and redeeming work of Jesus Christ, in his incarnation and his teaching, guiding and redemptive ministries is the sine qua non of salvation.
But nothing forces belief, and there are obstacles that hinder it. We can choose to reject the light and remain in the darkness out of self-defense and self-justification. Or because of our unwillingness to repent. "For everyone who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed."
The refusal to believe reflects a commitment to the works of darkness, while the choice to repent becomes an entrée to belief and life in the light. To do what is true is to acknowledge with honesty who we are when we stand before the holy God. We acknowledge our sinfulness and broken humanity, our distorted values and lifestyles. Then God works in us, and we acknowledge that our good deeds have been "wrought in God."
These two passages affirm that faith and works are intimately interrelated. Faith affirms that salvation is only from God, not our own doing. But God’s purpose for believers includes the doing of good works. Belief can be hindered or fostered by works. And the foundational good work is repentance. Faith, good works and repentance are the essence not only of Lenten discipline but of the Christian life throughout the year.
Faith can weaken when we are distracted. We may abandon good works or do them out of wrong motives and intentions. Repentance can turn to smug, soul-destroying pride. Lent provokes us to return to our pristine experience of the grace of God, reminding us of the core affirmation of our faith that "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life."
Lent is a time when the habit of service of self is challenged to become loving service to others with works that truly please God. And repentance means seeing ourselves as we really are -- which is far from what we ought to be.
In the calendar of the Orthodox Church, the Fourth Sunday of Great Lent commemorates St. John, author of The Ladder, a book of profound spiritual guidance. The importance of repentance is highlighted in the following passage:
We will not be condemned at the end of our lives because we did not perform miracles. Nor because we failed to theologize. Neither will be condemned because we have failed to achieve the divine vision. But because of one reason only; that we did not repent continuously.
Lent is a time for jump-starting the life of ever-renewed faith, consistent service for others and perpetual repentance.