In the Gospel of Matthew we read the account of a rich young man questioning Jesus concerning salvation and perfection. After a shocking witness to Jesus’ reply to the rich man, the disciples replied with astonishment “Who then can be saved [from eternal death]? (Matthew 19:25), to which Jesus responded “with men this is impossible, but all things are possible with God.” (Matthew 19:26). Oftentimes we can find ourselves in a place where we feel an overwhelming feeling of the impossibility of the salvation of our soul. When we see the vices that we still struggle with, and read the Word and the Early Church writings with such conviction, that at times elicits the question “who then can be saved?”. As troubling as this question is, the Lord quickly replies, “with men this is impossible”, meaning by our own strength and the wisdom of man it is certainly impossible, however “all things are possible with God.” Only with God are we able to accomplish the eternal salvation of our soul and achieve perfection.
There are three classifications of people in the pursuit of salvation. The first is the kind that believes “Jesus did it all at the cross, I’m under grace and fasting or studying is ‘works’.” This type of person has inherited a lazy doctrine of salvation grace, believing that by simply believing in Jesus will suffice for salvation. However, if this was truly the case, why did the Apostles fear their own salvation? According to James “Faith without works is dead” (James 2:20) and Jesus states “I know your works” (Revelations 2:2). The next type of person is one who takes too much upon themselves and emphasises works. These people try to “work their way to heaven” by observing how many steps they take on the Sabbath and meeting some type of quota for how many scriptures they memorized. As well as trying to overcome the vices in their soul through means of psychological counseling; trying to stop sinning by their own strength. It doesn’t really work, and it will only take you so far. Jordan Peterson for instance, is a fine example of how a person can maximize their own potential by taking responsibility for their own actions and strong ethics. Unfortunately, he was hospitalized for treatment to wean off his dependence on clonazepam, a sedative for anxiety and panic disorder. This almost cost him his life. Jordan Peterson has sold millions of books helping men and women around the world to empower them to take responsibility and become self-reliant. However, as much success as he has had, and numerous testimonies of lives changing, he had difficulty overcoming anxiety. It goes to show that we can take ourselves only so far, and without the power from God to change we are still not able to be transformed by our own strength.
Of the first two classes of people stated above, it seems that the latter type is more likely to be able to transfer to this third, a more perfect class of people. The third class is the one that has learned to walk with God, to co-labor with Him. This is a balance of the work we are required to do, and the work God will do through us. Oftentimes the commission we are given by God is a humanly impossible charge to fulfill. This is a frequent matter that we find in the Scriptures that the patriarchs, the prophets, and even the Apostles were met with. Why did God tell Abraham and Sarah, as an old couple and past the age of childbearing, that they would be with child? Zechariah and Elisabeth were given the same word, and Zechariah was not able to speak until the birth of John because of his disbelief. Why did God lead Moses to be pinned by the Egyptians with their backs to the Red Sea? Why did God tell Moses to set His people free from Egypt, the biggest superpower and strongest military in the world, without an army? Through just a few examples we have set forth, we can see how the LORD brings us to these circumstances to show us that we cannot achieve supernatural feats by natural means. The supreme reality of these trials is shown by the Lord’s answer to the Apostles prayer “for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)
What the Early Christians faced, they did so with boldness, knowing that the ability to overcome the vices they struggled with was capable of being overcome, by the strength and power of God. Ignatius, a disciple of the Apostle John stated “As persons who are perfect, ye should also aim at those things which are perfect. When you are desirous to do well, God is also ready to assist you.” (1) When we have the burning desire to change and to become perfect, God is ready to help us, however that is if we do not doubt that God is ready to assist us. What plagues most saints in walking in this, is unbelief. God is also not going to bring this change within us without our willing desire to – that would go against His divine nature. The Calvinistic/Gnostic belief was that God alone does this whether you want to or not, because He compels you due to you being “chosen”. This predestination Calvinistic heretical teaching goes against the Scriptures and what Jesus taught the Early Church.
Origen unveils this concept more intrusively, sharing an inciting point of view that challenges the false narrative of the Calvinistic/Gnostic belief of God doing it all. He also allows the Scriptures to breathe the Spirit of truth concerning perfection.
“I planted, Apollos watered; and God gave the increase. So then neither is he that planteth anything, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase.” (1Co_3:6, 1Co_3:7) Now we could not piously assert that the production of full crops was the work of the husbandman, or of him that watered, but the work of God. So also, our own perfection is brought about, not as if we ourselves did nothing; for it is not completed by us, but God produces the greater part of it. And that this assertion may be more clearly believed, we shall take an illustration from the art of navigation. For in comparison with the effect of the winds, and the mildness of the air, and the light of the stars, all co-operating in the preservation of the crew, what proportion could the art of navigation be said to bear in the bringing of the ship into harbor? – since even the sailors themselves, from piety, do not venture to assert often that they had saved the ship, but refer all to God; not as if they had done nothing, but because what had been done by Providence was infinitely greater than what had been effected by their art. And in the matter of our salvation, what is done by God is infinitely greater than what is done by ourselves; and therefore, I think, is it said that “it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy.” For if in the manner which they imagine we must explain the statement, that “it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy,” the commandments are superfluous; and it is in vain that Paul himself blames some for having fallen away, and approves of others as having remained upright, and enacts laws for the Churches: it is in vain also that we give ourselves up to desire better things, and in vain also (to attempt) to run. But it is not in vain that Paul gives such advice, censuring some and approving of others; nor in vain that we give ourselves up to the desire of better things, and to the chase after things that are pre-eminent. They have accordingly not well explained the meaning of the passage. (2)
With a thought-provoking statement “the commandments are superfluous” knowing that the Messiah said “if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments” (Matthew 19:17) giving instruction to the way of salvation. Why would Christ require us to keep the commandments to inherit life if God does it all for us? However impossible it may seem to walk out the commandments, that is a smaller portion of achieving perfection as God is the greatest proponent in the progression to one attaining salvation. Hermas gives us an encouraging insight for those of us who struggle with the doubt of being able to achieve such a feat.
“O feel, senseless and doubting, do you not perceive how great is the glory of God, and how strong and marvelous, in that He created the world for the sake of man, and subjected all creation to him, and gave him power to rule over everything under heaven? If then, man is lord of the creatures of God, and rules over all, is he not able to be lord also of these commandments? For,” says he, “the man who has the Lord in his heart can also be lord of all, and of every one of these commandments. But to those who have the Lord only on their lips, (Isa_29:13; Mat_15:8) but their hearts hardened, (Joh_12:40; 2Co_3:14) and who are far from the Lord, the commandments are hard and difficult. Put, therefore, ye who are empty and fickle in your faith, the Lord in your heart, and ye will know that there is nothing easier or sweeter, or more manageable, than these commandments. Return, ye who walk in the commandments of the devil, in hard, and bitter, and wild licentiousness, and fear not the devil; for there is no power in him against you, for I will be with you, the angel of repentance, who am lord over him. The devil has fear only, but his fear has no strength. (Jam_2:19, Jam_4:6, Jam_4:7) Fear him not, then, and he will flee from you.” (3)
It is the condition of one’s heart that determines if the commandments are easy, or difficult to walk out. When we have the Lord in our hearts, meaning we love Him with all our hearts, with every desire to please Him and walk in complete obedience towards Him, we thus have the ability to walk out these commandments and they will not be grievous nor burdensome to us. Fear is a terror in the hearts and minds of so many people today. Take notice of the cure of fearing the devil and all that belong to his kingdom. When one walks in the devil’s commandments, being obedient to the lust of the flesh and the vices that the devil tempts with, causes a weak and fragile person that is easily susceptible to reign of fear. However, we render Satan powerless when we repent with a sincere heart, and there is no repentance without walking in the commandments. One of the sins that we must repent of as we read from this, is a sin of disbelief.
Overcoming sin requires a zeal for holiness, nevertheless, just as the anointing oil consists of various ingredients, that zeal is one of the ingredients to overcoming sin. God works with those who have a willing heart, God does not work against a person’s will. Calvinism/Gnosticism teaches that men have no will, and it’s not our choice but God’s alone, which is contrary to Scripture and what the Early Church taught. Early Church Father Clement wrote,
For a man by himself working and toiling at freedom from passion achieves nothing. But if he plainly shows himself very desirous and earnest about this, he attains it by the addition of the power of God. For God conspires with willing souls. But if they abandon their eagerness, the spirit which is bestowed by God is also restrained. For to save the unwilling is the part of one exercising compulsion; but to save the willing, that of one showing grace. Nor does the kingdom of heaven belong to sleepers and sluggards, “but the violent take it by force.” (4)
There is violent faith and effort one is to have to take the kingdom of heaven. Clement displays for us how we are to walk with God by elucidating that by a violent passion for freedom from sin and death. God meets us at this “halfway point” to empower us to walk through the straight and narrow. This is a path of the chosen and elect that only a few will find. We often overcomplicate walking with God by overthinking a concept, that we make it out to seem that only Enoch or the patriarchs were able to walk. God has always wanted us to walk with Him. Believing in His Word and having the burning passion to overcome is what begins to enable us to do so. To God be the glory, Amen.
1. Ignatius-Epistle to the Smyrnaeans Ch. XI
2. Origen-First Principles Book 3 Ch. 1 Sec. 18
3. Hermas-the Shepherd Bk. 2 Pt 2 Ch. IV
4. Clement of Alexandria-Rich Man Ch. XXI