A question and my response:
Hi father. I was wondering if you could shed a bit of light on a particular passage/concept for a protestant friend. This is from the Book of Tobit."8 Prayer with fasting[a] is good, and so is giving to the poor with righteousness. The possession of a little with righteousness is better than much with injustice.[b] Giving to the poor is better than storing up gold. 9 Giving to the poor saves from death, and it washes away every sin. Those who give to the poor will feel satisfied with life, 10 but those who commit sin and injustice are their own worst enemies."He took exception to the bolded part. It seems to me that he sees salvation and performing good deeds as exclusive things not really related to each other. Could you elaborate on this for me?
The problem probably lies in your friend's forensic understanding of salvation: salvation as a legal act before God. If salvation is merely a legal change of position or change of standing before God, then you can speculate about what the conditions are to obtain that salvation. Protestants and Catholics have argued (based on the same forensic paradigm) about this since the 16th century. Catholics have argued that the change in standing takes place because of both faith and good works. The Protestants have argued faith alone (although there are as many Protestant opinions as there are denominations).
Orthodox Christians understand salvation as something one actually experiences in this life and in the next. It is not a change in God or God's attitude towards us. It is a change in us. Salvation has many aspects, not merely spiritual aspects. Salvation includes the whole process of experiencing the Grace of God at all stages of our life and in all areas of our life. It includes repentance and it includes transformation by the Grace of God. It includes growing in the knowledge of God. Of course all of these involve faith, but they all also involve aspects of work on our part. There is a synergy (which is the technical, theological term for this). We depend completely on God, but we too must believe and act because we are the ones changing.
Sometimes acting is the way belief is manifest—as in this passage from Tobit. When we feed the poor, for example, we are, through our actions, believing that we are feeding Christ. This is the core of one of St. James' arguments in the book of James. He says, "show me your faith without works, and I will show you my faith by my works." But again, it is not about something in heaven. It is not about a change in position before God. It is about becoming by Grace more like Christ. It is about my ongoing repentance and transformation. That is what Orthodox Christians mean when they say "salvation," which is why it cannot be easily parsed into either faith or works, or some specific formula. Salvation encompasses our whole life, thus being saved entails many different kinds of inner and outer actions—all of which can be said to save us.
Not only do our faith and actions, by God's Grace, save us, but also the prayers, good will and actions of others save us. This is why we pray for one another. Of course, all and any salvation is a matter of the Grace of God; however, God has ordained that His Grace be distributed through His Body, the Church. Therefore, if you pray that I be delivered from a terrible situation, and I am indeed delivered, I can say that I was saved by your prayers. Yes, I know that God is the One (the only One) who saves, but I also know that God has chosen to distribute the gifts of the Holy Spirit in His body severally, so that one part supplies what another lacks. Thus we become, in St. Paul's words, co-labourers with Christ.
Some people have a superabundant amount of God's Grace in their life, and when they pray for and help others, the results are amazing, wondrous, miraculous. When this grace-filled power is yoked to holiness in a man or woman's life, we often recognize the person as a saint (miraculous powers alone are not sufficient, in fact, they can be very misleading). We believe that the gifts and callings of God are without repentance, that the Grace of God stays with the person forever. Therefore when a saintly person falls asleep in the Lord, we believe that the Grace that worked in that person's life continues to work in and through them by their intercessory prayers in heaven. This is why we pray to the saints: we pray to them asking them to pray for and with us (not instead of us). This is no different from asking my best friend to pray for me when I have a difficult job to do. Of course I am also praying to God, but I also recognize that God uses or accepts the prayers of others on my behalf too.