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How We Are Saved by Faith Alone

1 Timothy 1:12-17

Timothy Copple

(1 Tim 1:12-14 NKJV) And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord who has enabled me, because He counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry, (13) although I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man; but I obtained mercy because I did it ignorantly in unbelief. (14) And the grace of our Lord was exceedingly abundant, with faith and love which are in Christ Jesus.

After having dealt with those who "desiring to be teachers of the law, understanding neither what say nor the things which they affirm," St. Paul moves to express the mystery of the Gospel upon which the whole of one’s salvation is founded.

To those who wish to base our salvation upon our own ability to "know" God in human knowledge, listen to what St. Symeon the New Theologian has to say:

"For no one is able to think of speak properly about what concerns the holy Trinity from just reading the Scriptures. One instead accepts it by faith alone, abides with what has been written, and does not dabble with anything more. As for those who are curious and dare to meddle cheerfully with divine things, [they should understand that] it is not possible to say anything at all outside of what has been written and taught by the fathers.

"Listen to what Christ says in confirmation:

"’No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him [Mt 11:27]’

"With these and similar sayings He therefore shuts up the shameless and flapping mouths of those people who say and think that by exterior wisdom and book-learning they know the whole truth, know God Himself, and possess knowledge of the mysteries hidden in God’s Spirit."
(St. Symeon the New Theologian, "Ninth Ethical Discourse")

For those who would believe that our salvation depends upon our ability to perform certain task correctly, St. Symeon also has a few things to say on this account.

"Since according the divine Apostle it is ‘Not because of works, lest any man should boast’ [Eph 3:9] that salvation comes to us who believe, we must not be confident at all in our works—I mean fasting and vigils, sleeping on the ground, hunger and thirst, binding the body with irons or troubling it with hair shirts. These things are nothing at all, because many indeed among the evil-doers and the wretched have endured such things and remained the same, neither ceasing from their evil nor improving from their wickedness. While these actions do contribute a little to dragging the body down toward humility, or better, to incapacity and infirmity, yet this by itself is not what God is seeking. He longs instead for a broken spirit, a humble and contrite heart, and for us always to speak our heart to Him with humility: ‘Who am I, my Master and God, that You came down and took flesh and died for me, so that You could deliver me from death and corruption, and make me a communicant and participant of Your glory and divinity?’ When, according to the invisible movements of your heart, you find yourself in this state, you will discover Him immediately embracing you and kissing you mystically, and bestowing on you a right spirit in your inward parts, a spirit of freedom and of remission of your sins. Nor this alone but, crowning you as well with His gifts, He will make you glorious with wisdom and knowledge."
(St. Symeon the New Theologian, "Eighth Ethical Discourse")

So you see here in St. Paul these same evidences. One, he was a "blasphemer" of God, because he was persecuting and seeking to fight against that which God had put in place. Two, he did this out of "ignorance" because he did not really know God. Before Christ appeared to him on the Damascus Road, he thought He had knowledge, but it was only human knowledge of the Law. He thought He had a righteousness as one of the strictest of the Pharisees in following the letter of the Law. However, when he encountered Christ in His glory, he was blinded yet he was not destroyed. He fell to the ground, in order that he might be raised up in Christ. He was led by the hand in darkness that he would be led to Christ who is the light. This is due to God’s grace and mercy. All St. Paul’s knowledge and works had brought him was to actually find himself fighting against God rather than for Him since he did not really know Him. Only when St. Paul came face to face with the risen Christ does he then see the folly of what he once thought was wisdom. All the saints confess that knowledge of God does not come from our own ability to deduce, induce or to systematically understand God purely on a factual knowledge of Him. Rather, it is through putting on Christ and dying to the Old Man, being illumined and having our passions burned from us in the fiery grace of His abiding presence in us.

This salvation is due to the grace of our Lord which comes with "faith and love." Even in this, this faith and love comes as we are "in Christ". As St. Paul says elsewhere, it is a gift. We cannot earn it, we cannot lay any kind of claim to acquiring it of our own merits. The only foundation for our salvation lays in the grace of Christ Jesus our Lord, and our faith therein.

(1 Tim 1:15-17) This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief. (16) However, for this reason I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show all longsuffering, as a pattern to those who are going to believe on Him for everlasting life. (17) Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, to God who alone is wise, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

We are familiar with the "chief of sinners" statement. We recite that phrase at each liturgy in preparation for receiving the Body and Blood of Christ in the Holy Gifts. Rightly we mystically recognize that each of us are the "chief of sinners". Why? How can everyone be the "first and worst" of sinners?

St. Paul had a special claim to this title. After all, he actively sought the deaths and torture of God’s people. He was consumed with a "zeal without knowledge" and in so doing became widely known as one to be feared by Christians when he came to town. He sincerely felt that he was the chief of sinners, because of his outright opposition to God. Despite the fact that he was indeed the "chief of sinners" yet he received mercy from God, making him a pattern for us. This thought is expressed by St. John Chrysostom’s homily on these passages:

"But how is it, that he here calls himself a sinner, nay, the chief of sinners, whereas he elsewhere asserts that he was "touching the righteousness which is in the law blameless"? (Phil. iii. 6.) Because with respect to the righteousness which God has wrought, the justification which is really sought, even those who are righteous in the law are sinners, "for all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God." (Rom. iii. 23.) Therefore he does not say righteousness simply, but "the righteousness which is in the law." As a man that has acquired wealth, with respect to himself appears rich, but upon a comparison with the treasures of kings is very poor and the chief of the poor; so it is in this case. Compared with Angels, even righteous men are sinners; and if Paul, who wrought the righteousness that is in the law, was the chief of sinners, what other man can be called righteous? For he says not this to condemn his own life as impure, let not this be imagined; but comparing his own legal righteousness with the righteousness of God, he shows it to be nothing worth, and not only so, but he proves those who possess it to be sinners."

You see, we are not comparing ourselves against each other, as if we were the chief of sinners among men and women, but we are comparing ourselves against God, we are all the chief of sinners. On a personal level, we also see ourselves as the chief of sinners among those around us as well, since we are not called to judge anyone else but ourselves. If we do not believe ourselves to be the chief, then we have judged our brother as being worse of a sinner than we are and will be judged ourselves in the same manner by God. In this manner, we are called to focus on our own unworthiness before God, knowing like St. Paul that we are blasphemers in our actions and thoughts, even if they might be done from habit or ignorance. Yet we recognize that we are, like St. Paul, finding ourselves fighting against God by relying upon our own intellect and abilities as a foundation of our salvation.

Now we get to this phrase made popular by Martin Luther in the Reformation, which we find St. Symeon using above: Faith alone. Are you surprised that he used this phrase? Do not be, for he is not alone among the Fathers. In his homily on these very verses, we also find St. John Chrysostom using these very words himself:

"That those who were enemies, and sinners, neither justified by the law, nor by works, should immediately through faith alone be advanced to the highest favor. "

And again:

"As the Jews were chiefly attracted by this, he persuades them not to give heed to the law, since they could not attain salvation by it without faith. Against this he contends; for it seemed to them incredible, that a man who had mis-spent all his former life in vain and wicked actions, should afterwards be saved by his faith alone."

What are we to make of this? Why the big problem with being saved by "faith alone" if even the Church Fathers taught this? You will note, however, that just as St. Paul and St. James do not then say that because our works are not a foundation to our salvation, that they are a hindrance to it. Rather it is the fulfillment of faith. To divorce works from faith is to make it abstract and lifeless. The opposite of faith is unbelief. The chief characterisitic of either is in what we do or do not put our trust in. As St. Symeon also says:

"Knowledge of these things is for them whose intellect is illumined daily by the Holy Spirit on account of their purity of soul, whose eyes have been clearly opened by the rays of the Sun of righteousness, whose word of knowledge and word of wisdom is through the Spirit alone, whose understanding and fear of God, through love and peace, are preserved firmly in faith by the sanctity and goodness of their way of life."
(St. Symeon the New Theologian, "Ninth Ethical Discourse")

At the beginning of the Eighth Ethical Discourse, St. Symeon gives us the context in which the Father’s understand being saved by "faith alone."

"And, wishing to show us the way of salvation, He says: ‘God sent His Son into the world, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life’ [3:16]. Whoever therefore believes these things from his heart and is assured that Christ came not to judge but to save him, and not by his own labor or effort or sweat, but by faith alone in Him: how, tell me, should he not then love Him with all his soul and all his mind?"

You see, it is not "by faith alone," period. Rather it is "by faith, in Christ alone" that we are saved. Our whole belief and trust is in Him alone. If our trust is in our intellect or our own abilities to perform works of righteousness, then we neither believe Him nor have faith alone in Him. If we thus really believe Him, have put our trust in Him alone as our only source of salvation, knowledge, wisdom and glory, and this is not simply a saying of our lips and brain but a heart felt conviction; then our outer man will also show forth its conformity to this belief and faith by doing all it’s works and activities as building on that foundation. Faith alone in Him results in the Holy Spirit writing the Law on our heart as promised by the prophets and fulfilled on the day of Pentecost. Then, as St. Symeon says in another place, the commandments are worn as an adornment and not as a straightjacket. They are as medicine to our prideful soul bring us to health, not works of self-righteousness leading us to further delusion, illness and death of the soul. They guide us in the spirit of obedience, breaking of the will, and humility to God.

Faith, then, involves our whole self, the intellect, the heart and the body. Salvation by faith alone is in essence a renunciation of ourselves as a foundation. We no longer trust ourselves. We no longer trust our will. We trust, only Christ. The more we deaden the passions of our own will and heart do we open ourselves up to receive the passion of Christ alone. St. Symeon puts it thus:

"What else is so dear to God and welcome as a contrite and humble heart, and pride laid low in a spirit of humility? It is in such a condition of soul that God Himself comes to dwell and make His rest, and that every machination of the devil remains ineffective. All the corrupting passions of sin vanish completely. The fruit of the Holy Spirit alone weighs heavy in the soul, that fruit which is love, joy, peace, kindness, goodness, faith, meekness, humility, all-embracing continence, followed in succession and beauty by divine knowledge, the wisdom of the Word, and the abyss of Christ’s hidden councils and mysteries. He who has arrived at becoming and being endowed with these qualities is changed for the good, and from a man he becomes an angel. In the body here-below he circulates among men, but in his spirit he lives and converses with the angels, and in joy inexpressible stretches himself out to the love of God. To that love no one among men has ever drawn near unless first he purified his heart through repentance and many tears, and penetrated the depths of humility, and became pregnant with the Holy Spirit, by the grace and love for mankind of our Lord Jesus Christ, with Whom be glory, honor, and majesty to the Father together with the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen."
(St. Symeon the New Theologian, "Eighth Ethical Discourse")

This is the faith and hope of St. Paul in writing these words, and the inexpressible gift of love that God bestows on us if only we approach Him in repentance, tears of the soul, and humility as the chief of sinners. Some might think that this seems depressing and hard. We want joy and happiness. What the saints have found, however, is that just as worldly joy and happiness leads one to sadness and gloom, dying daily to our desire for these things, bringing ourselves to the cross of our sins by allowing the brightness of His light to shine in us, we will discover a joy and peace that the world cannot give. This is where the faith and the trust in Christ comes in, because our first reaction to the light is to run away. Like St. Paul we tend to become blinded, experiencing the full humiliation and force of our sins by His presence. If, however, we trust in Him, allow Him to led us by the hand, we will in time also have our sight restored, our sins cleaned up, and the joy of God shining in our souls. It is this contrast which brings St. Paul to praise God, for even though He had a very big pile of sins of the most grievous kind, yet God was merciful. We too can count on that kind of mercy and compassion before God if we will but endure the painful, messy struggle of shining the light of Christ on our sins and allowing Him to instill in us the virtues of His character. From this comes true joy and happiness as St. Paul expresses in these brief words of thanksgiving for what God has done. He is our pattern. Follow him as he follows Christ.

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