Friday, July 25, 2014

Isaac the Syrian on salvation by grace

In the last posting I briefly considered some citations from Isaac from III/5 regarding the gift of deification. In III/6 Isaac spends a lot of time addressing the notion of salvation or justification by grace. This is a topic which moves him immensely, the contemplation of which he considers to be an important mandate: The fact that we don't rightly do what we are supposed to do is less grave than the fact that we don't meditate upon what we've received [viz., the gift of salvation], so as to understand it and consequently confess it as much as we are able (III/6, 1).

Isaac begins his discussion with a mention of the things of God (6, 4), by which I take it he refers to the gift of salvation and deification. It will become evident, however, that for Isaac, salvation includes something like justification by faith. He again and again emphasizes the grace of God operative in salvation, and the inability of the flesh to make itself right.

Therefore: We are justified by His things, not by our own. We inherit heaven through what are His, not through what are ours (6, 6). The ultimate reason for which salvation depends upon God and not upon us is the fact of our own natural weakness:

The explanation of what has just been said, namely that a person is not justified through works, is this: he cannot be justified by works that are seen, that is, works of the Law. Because the flesh is not able to fulfill all that is commanded and thus to justify a person. A person is justified by the works of faith! (6, 7)

What are these works of faith that justify a person? Isaac says a number of different things:

. . . whenever a person tries to do some thing very small in accordance with his powers and he does it of his own will, even if he doesn't realize his deed, and therefore [he does it] without great labor for its realization, God by his grace considers it the fullness of righteousness, attributing to him the completed work. As for myself, even if I cannot do anything, I work according to my powers. It is certain that I cannot be without reasons for embarrassment and without sin, but You [o God], for this tiny work that I complete, give me righteousness (6, 13).

Here you would get the impression that justification by grace is accomplished by the effort, however small, to do some thing which God expects. This sounds like justification by grace by small works. But he goes on:

Sometimes it happens that I don't even do this tiny deed; and not only that I will not bring forth any deed, but many times even that sincere volition for a good desire which I had turns from your sight, it deepens into evil and departs from you, while I end up empty even of a sincere will towards you. Then, even though I lack both deeds and volition, merely through the thought of repentance which you awaken with me, right away you grant me the fullness of righteousness, though I am far from deeds . . . And waiting for all these things, You yourself receive me, and through grace, without works, you justify me, you seat me once more in the high place where I was earlier; and just through the turning of my will, without being capable of anything, you cast away from me the death of conscience and you give me an innocent righteousness (6, 14-5).

At this point Isaac affirms that there is a justification which takes place even apart from the completion of any works, however small or imperfect, merely through the thought of repentance. Here were are far from accusing Isaac of any justification through small works. This is indeed a justification by grace, when upon even the thought of repentance God will grant justification!

It seems to me that Isaac is proposing a justification by faith, where "faith" is understood as the slightest turn towards God. Faith in God, trust in him, belief in his word, is presumed by any Godward orientation at all. You could not even consider repentance if you did not think that what you had done was sin, in accordance with God's word. Therefore Isaac is proposing justification by faith, where faith is any turn toward God of any magnitude. Of course, there is a turn, but it is not always one accompanied by works; what is needed is just the turn of the will: . . . He asks of us merely the smallest volition, and His grace gives abundantly and He forgives our sins (6, 17).

For Isaac, justification by faith so understood implies that God, in his generous mercy, can hardly wait to forgive us of our sins and to resume fellowship with us. Wherever even just the name of repentance is found, even if it be a mere facade, He stoops down happily to grant us forgiveness (6, 27). God loves the entire human race and therefore all human persons, not only some of them (6, 31), and God's justice is never separated from mercy and a concern for the good of those persons with whom he has to do (6, 20, 32). Therefore Isaac concludes: even if a person is sinful, taking advantage of even the slightest pretext, [God] names him righteous right away; and for the good of a single day He forgives the wickedness of his entire past life (6, 34). God is delighted to name us righteous. As I said, He wanted this so that, using any pretext, He'd be able to enjoy all persons as righteous, and to include every person in their number (6, 36).

Justification by faith is an evidence of God's great mercy towards us, because he readily accepts as righteous any person that makes the slightest turn towards him. Isaac repeats more than once that God happily and willingly uses any pretext or device to name a person righteous and thus enjoy fellowship with him. He thinks that it would be well for us to meditate upon the love of God, upon his readiness to accept us and to grant us life: This is the delight of angels! (6, 44). For Isaac, God in the infinity of his love, can hardly wait to justify us and to give us everything that is good!