by Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov
One of the great Church Fathers of the19th century, Bishop Ignaty played the very important role of spokesman for uncompromising Orthodox Christianity to the Russian intelligentsia, who had departed so far from Christian truth as to be incapable of distinguishing it from error, The following letter, slightly abridged, offers a refreshing antidote to some of the confusion in our own day as well as in his.
Here is a spectacle worthy of bitter lamentation: Christians who do not know in what Christianity consists! Yet one encounters this spectacle almost everywhere one looks today; rarely, in the great multitude of those who call themselves Christians, can one find anyone who is a Christian both in name and in deed...
Christians! You reason about salvation, yet you do not know what salvation is, why men are in need of it, and finally, you do not know Christ, the only means of our salvation. Here is the true teaching on this subject, the teaching of the Holy Ecumenical Church.
Salvation consists in the recovery of communion with God. This communion was lost by the whole human race when our ancestors fell into sin. The whole human race belongs too category of doomed creatures. Damnation is the lot of all people, whether virtuous or evil-doers. We are conceived in iniquity and born in sin. “I will go down to my son mourning to hell” (Gen. 37:35), said the holy patriarch Jacob of himself and his holy son Joseph the chaste and fair. It is not only sinners who descended into hell at the end of their earthly pilgrimage, but the righteous men of the Old Testament as well. Such is the power of the good works of men; such is the worth of the virtues of our fallen nature!
In order to restore man’s communion with God, in other words, for salvation, redemption was necessary. The redemption of the human race was accomplished not be an angel, not by an archangel, not by some other of the higher but still limited and created beings, --it was accomplished by the infinite God Himself. Execution was the lot of the human race, commuted by His execution; the insufficiency of human merit was compensated by His endless worth. All feeble works of men, which lead to hell, are compensated by a single powerful good work: faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. The Jews asked the Lord: “What must we do, that we may work the works of God?” And the Lord answered them: “This is the work of God, that ye believe on Him Whom He hath sent” (St. John 6:29). One good work is necessary to us for salvation: faith; but faith is faith, and by faith alone, may we enter into communion with God, with the aid of the sacraments which He has granted to us.
You are quite wrong, then, if you think and say that good people among pagans and Moslems are saved, that is enter into communion with God... The Church has always acknowledged but one means to salvation: the Redeemer ....
Christians! You must know Christ! You must realize that you do not know Him, that you deny Him if you acknowledge salvation possible without Him for any kind of good works. He who acknowledges salvation to be possible without Chris t denies Christ and, perhaps without knowing it, falls into the grave sin of blasphemy. "We reckon therefore that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law," says the holy Apostle Paul (Rom. 3:28). "The righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ unto all them that believe; for there is no distinction. 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" (Rom. 3:22-24). You reply: "The holy Apostle James without any question asks for good works; he teaches that faith without works is dead." But consider just what it is that the holy Apostle James asks for.
You will see that he, like all the Divinely-inspired writers of the Holy Scriptures, asks for works of faith, and not the good works of our fallen nature. He asks for living faith, confirmed by the works of the new man, and not the good works of fallen nature, which are repulsive to faith. He cites the conduct of the patriarch Abraham--a work in which the faith of that righteous man was revealed. This work consisted in offering as a sacrifice to God his only-begotten son. To slay one's son for sacrifice is not by any means a good work according to human nature; it is, rather, a good work insofar as it fulfills a Divine command--it is a work of faith. Look into the New Testament and into the Holy Scriptures in general, and you find that they ask for the fulfillment of God's commands, that this fulfillment is called works, that from this fulfillment of God's commands, faith in God becomes living, being active; without it, faith is dead, being deprived of any activity. And on the contrary you will find that the good works of fallen nature, whether from feelings, from blood, from impulse, or from a tender sentiment of heart--are forbidden and rejected ! and these are the same good works that please you in pagans and Moslems: for these, even if they involve the denial of Christ, you want to give them salvation! ...
The Gospel teaches us that by the fall we acquired a falsifying reason; that the reason of our fallen nature, no matter what its innate worth, no matter how well sharpened by worldly learning, retains the worth transmitted to it by the fall and remains a falsifying reason. We must reject it and commit ourselves to the guidance of faith; under such guidance, in due time, through much effort in piety, God will give to His true slave a reason of truth, or spiritual reason. This reason we can and must acknowledge as a sound reason; it is an informed faith, as the Apostle Paul excellently described it in the 11th chapter of his epistle to the Hebrews. The foundation of spiritual reasoning is God. Being founded on this hard rock, it does not waver nor fall. What you call sound reason, we Christians take to be a reason so infirm, so darkened and so far gone astray, that there can be no healing for it except by cutting it off, with the sword of faith, and renouncing all the learning that has gone into its formation. If we take it for a sound reason, basing ourselves on a foundation that is uncertain, tottering, indefinite, constantly changing--then it, being sound, will renounce Christ, too. This is proved by experience...
The Gospel--that is, the teaching of Christ, that is, the Holy Scriptures, that is, the Holy Ecumenical Church – has revealed to us all that man may know of the Divine mercy, which surpasses every kind of reasoning and all human apprehension, and is inaccessible to these. Vain is the trifling of the human mind when it seeks to define the indefinable God, when it seeks to explain the inexplicable, to submit to its own calculations.., whom?... God! Such an undertaking is a satanic one.
Oh, these people who call themselves Christians and do not know the teaching of Christ!... Does it follow from this that God is obliged to understand and feel as you understand and feel? Yet this is what you are demanding of God! What a foolish and prideful undertaking. Do not accuse the Church's judgement of a lack of common sense and humility--it is your own lack. She, the holy Church, merely follows unswervingly the Divine teaching on the acts of God, revealed by God Himself. Her true children follow her obediently, scorning the puffed-reason that rises up against God, We believe that we can know about God only what God deigns to reveal to us. If there had been a different path to the knowledge of God, a path which our mind could have cleared for itself with its own powers, revelation would not have been given us. It was given because it was necessary for us. Vain and deceitful, then, are the personal opinions and wanderings of the human mind·
· ,.Do not think that such ignorance is a defect of small importance· It is not. Its consequences can be fatal, especially now when any number of books with a satanic teaching are circulating under a Christian title. In ignorance of true Christian teaching, just like that you can take a false, blasphemous idea for a true one, appropriate it to yourself, and together with it appropriate eternal damnation as well... Do not play with your salvation! Do not play with it, or you will weep forever.
Occupy yourself with the reading of the New Testament and the Holy Fathers of the Orthodox Church...; study in the Holy Fathers of the Orthodox Church how to understand Scripture aright, study there what kind of living,, what kind of thoughts and feelings are fitting for a Christian.
From("The Orthodox Word," March-April,1965)