Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” And he was called the friend of God. (James 2:22-23)
“Faith” plays a significant role in Christianity and is given a lot of treatment in the New Testament as well as in post-Apostolic theology. “Faith” is compared and contrasted with the religious practice of zealously keeping the regulations of Torah. The term “faith” is used in various ways in different contexts and by the various New Testament authors, so it obviously doesn’t mean just one thing. For example, one current Orthodox theologian, Christos Yannaras, describes faith as our response to the Gospel. Faith for him is a form of repentance: our turning away from sin and guilt to accept God’s freely offered forgiveness.
First is the priority of faith/trust in God – of the faith that is testified to be the basic requirement for participation in the fact of the church. The way the gospel is expressed is, before anything else, an invitation to faith: a call to humanity to believe in God, to trust him, to surrender itself to his love. And no manifestation of evil appears capable of hindering or thwarting faith, which is the leap of self-surrender to divine love: neither the crimes of the robber on the cross, nor the apostasy of the prodigal son, nor the wrongdoing of the tax collector, nor the pleasure seeking of the prostitute – nothing. Evil, as deed, urge, tendency, habit, or instinctual need, and also as guilt, lawlessness, or sin, is nullified by the leap of faith. This is abundantly clear in the way the gospel is expressed, a central pillar of the gospel preaching of the church. (THE ENIGMA OF EVIL, p 89)
Theodoret of Cyrus, writing in the 5th Century, also sees faith as our response to God’s grace, but our faith brings about an immediate synergy between us and God. God offers salvation in the Gospel, and we respond with the only positive thing we can offer God: our faith. We don’t initiate faith, God’s grace and love for us, invites us to respond, and our good response is faith which immediately God accepts and works with. Faith does not result from our being good or doing good. It is only our good response to God’s gracious invitation to salvation. God requires nothing of us in advance. We don’t have to be good or on the path of repentance to hear the Gospel. We don’t need to be virtuous for God to reveal salvation to us. When we hear the Gospel, we can recognize the goodness of it and accept it in faith – this is our response to recognizing the godliness and holiness of the Gospel. This then opens the door of our heart, soul and mind to let the Holy Spirit into our lives.
By grace, in fact, you are saved through faith (Eph 2:8): the grace of God regaled us with these good things; we had only faith to offer but divine grace worked with it. He went on in this vein: this is no doing of yours: it is the gift of God, not from works lest anyone boast (Eph 2:8-9): we have not believed of our own volition; rather we made our approach when called, and when we did he did not require of us purity of life – instead, he accepted faith alone and granted us forgiveness of sins. In other words, we are of his making, created in Christ Jesus for good works for which God prepared us so that we should walk in him (2:10). He used created here of the regeneration: he called us (he is saying) out of his ineffable goodness; we responded, and by coming to faith we attain salvation. Before baptism, however, he did not require of us the practice of virtue, whereas after baptism he urges us to cling to it as well. This, in fact, is what he means by for good works so that we should walk in him. (COMMENTARY ON THE LETTERS OF ST PAUL Vol 2, p 39)
First we are offered salvation, and only after we embrace it are we offered the chance to repent. Salvation comes first, and then repentance. This is the pattern found first in the Old Testament, where God saves Israel from slavery in Egypt before giving them the Law to obey. We pray for this same sequence whenever we pray Psalm 51, Orthodoxy’s main Psalm of repentance:
Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit. Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you. Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance. (Psalms 51:12-14)
Before I can teach transgressors God’s way, I must first personally experience the joy of God’s salvation. Only once I’ve experienced deliverance, can I rejoice in it and proclaim salvation to others. Christ follows the same sequence – first He dies on the cross for our salvation, and then invites us to accept His invitatin to the heavenly banquet. It is only after we hear that Gospel and embrace its saving power that we are then called to live the godly life. In other words, it is backwards to demand people follow Christ’s commandments before they know Christ as Savior. Evangelism presents the Goodnews first, and only when people embrace their salvation are they invited to change their life and follow the Gospel commandments.
Faith only results from having something or someone to believe in, thus it doesn’t originate in us, but in God. We can’t simply will to be faithful, we have to first have something or someone to believe in.
What shall I render to the LORD for all his bounty to me? I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the LORD, I will pay my vows to the LORD in the presence of all his people. (Psalm 116:12-14)