St Nektarios of Aegina
(Extract from the book Ten Homilies on Great Lent
Translation Fr. Ioakeim Oureilidis, 2020)
For the redemption of humanity, God sent His messenger1 to appear before men to herald repentance and forgiveness of sins2.One cannot but stand in awe and admiration before God’s love for man, His magnificent affection to people: He “Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth”3. wanted to prepare the world for the reception of the gospel of salvation. Repentance then, is the only cleansing agent in order to receive the good word. It was this cleansing power of repentance that John demonstrated through the baptism in the river Jordan. If repentance has been regarded by God as the only preparatory means for the reception of the good word (the gospel), it follows that it is the only cleansing means which can release the soul of man from its sins and render is it worthy to receive the Lord.
As it is impossible for man to remain without sins even for an hour in this world4, it follows that he constantly sins. This is why I would like to talk about repentance and to prove how necessary it is for man not to delay to offer his penitence to God.
The reasons that we sin.
Having created man with the characteristics of free will and freedom of actions which he would exercise on earth, God gave him the powers of the soul, through which he is able to distinguish accurately between good and evil, to wish good, to want it and take pleasure in it, and at the same time to hate evil and find it repulsive and disgusting. The reason for this abundance of gifts from God to man was that He wanted man to be sanctified, because only a human being who has freedom of will and power and who is self-determining in his actions can be sanctified. Man, as the physical image of God in the world and, in power, god on earth, must walk away from sin by his own actions through his freedom and self-determination. Ben Sirach, in his Wisdom (Ecclesiasticus), talks about man’s freedom and says that God “himself made man in the beginning, and then left him free to make his own decisions… Man has life and death before him; whichever a man likes better will be given him”5.
Man, though, was deceived by the devil and made detrimental use of his freedom so he fell to turpitude and lapsed from honour and value and from the union from God. He then had to stop living in paradise and he became a citizen of the country of thorns and thistles6 and an adversary to God. Thus, sin distanced man from God, the human soul was weakened, the mind was blurred and could not discriminate between what was rightfully good and its opposite. Man’s volition could not always guide him to what was good, and the desire did not always lead him to what was beneficial, but he received great pleasure in what was impish. Since then, the human soul had been covered in several layers of sin and was in need of a cleansing agent that would be powerful enough to absolve him. This cleansing agent was no other than repentance, which all the prophets talked about and in the end John the Baptist, too, who offered a baptism for the purification of the soul.
The original sin reduces man to being susceptible to sinning.
Following the original sin, man lost his strength and moral powers and thus started committing sins unceasingly one after the other. Human nature is susceptible to sinning and if man has sinned once, he is prone to continue with it7. Our Lord demonstrates the susceptibility of man to sin with an amazing example: “Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in threat. Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it”8. Ancient Greek sophists and poets expressed a similar idea. Hesiod writes: “Badness can be got easily and in shoals: the road to her is smooth, and she lives very near us. But between us and Goodness the gods have placed the sweat of our brows: long and steep is the path that leads to her, and it is rough at the first; but when a man has reached the top, then is she easy to reach, though before that she was hard”9.
Therefore, it can be said, that the original sin, in a way, pushes man towards further sinning. Thus, the meagre human being, devoid of proper judgment finds iniquity more attractive than virtue as the latter is a long and arduous path and the man who walks on it reaches a point where it becomes a struggle to keep pace or even make progress. That a lot of strength is needed to keep pace is certified by the Lord who says: “the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force”10. With these words the Lord says that it is only by urging oneself towards virtue that one may become worthy of the kingdom of God: the road of iniquity is a declivity, and it is smooth and easy for everyone to follow. So, we need to repent, for with our soul being stained by sin, we cannot be saved.
The will of man together with the divine grace offers man salvation.
To be able to be offered salvation, we must first want to repent and then we must be visited by the divine grace which will mitigate our circumstances and save us. At the beginning of the fifth century A.D. there was a discussion among theologians on whether the will of man alone, or the grace of God alone was enough to offer man salvation. Pelagians, the followers of Pelagius, were of the conviction that the will of man to be saved alone was enough to offer him salvation. Very significant fathers of the church from the west, like Augustine of Hippo and Eusebius, Sophronius and Hieronymus (St Jerome) stood against the erroneous belief of Pelagius, and they demanded that his false and distorting teaching be renounced. However, out of zeal, they went to the other extreme, claiming that the grace of God alone was effective and sufficient for the salvation of man, so, the will of man to repent was irrelevant. The Church, being in complete disagreement with both these views and guided by the Holy Spirit and well-formed reason, has decreed that neither the grace of God alone, nor the will of man alone can offer man salvation but that they both need to concur for this purpose. Each one of them on its own, working unilaterally, is insufficient to deliver salvation and brings with it something which is unwise rather than irrational, something which is unworthy of and inconsistent with the divine wisdom and divine righteousness. If the free will of man alone was sufficient to offer him salvation, the revealed great elusive to human mind purpose of the divine economy, the incarnation of God would have been worthless. If, on the other hand, the divine grace alone was to offer salvation, God would have been rendered guilty of favouritism, as not everyone is saved: This would mean that He saves only the ones that He wants and the rest He condemns. Neither of these is acceptable to the divine wisdom, clemency, and righteousness, so the Church firmly declares that both the human free will and the divine grace are to concur for the salvation of man, for they are the two wheels of the chariot on which salvation journeys. The doctrine of the church is based on this foundation, which, in turn, is based on the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Lord, in his wish to advise people that salvation does not come from the grace of God alone, but also from the free will of man said: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me”11, which clearly demonstrates that the divine grace does not force anyone to do something and it asserts the power of the free will of man and that the grace of God saves those who want to be saved. Therefore, God does not predestine anything. On the contrary, God: “will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth”12. This phrase would have been untrue if the divine grace alone was the source of salvation of man. That man’s free will is not sufficient to lead him into salvation is very clearly stipulated by the Lord Himself: “for without me ye can do nothing”13 and “I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved”14. From the above quotation it is clearly confirmed that both human free will and divine grace are necessary to concur, for if someone is to enter, he first needs to want to enter. It is now unquestionable that both human free will and divine grace must work together if man is to be saved.
Our salvation, according to Gregory Theologian, must rely both on our volition and on the grace of God: “It has to be both from us and from God to be saved”15. John Chrysostom says that although grace might be a divine gift, it will save only those who want to be saved “For grace, though it be grace, saves only the willing”16. So, the grace of God and the will of man should be conjoined and mutually active for the salvation of man. The grace of God precedes and succeeds whereas the human volition rests amidst it. The grace of God invites, encourages, fortifies and the volition of man decides, so grace comes again to complete the task of salvation. So, it is essential for the volition to hear the calling of the voice of grace, so that man can be saved. God always invites every man that sins to come to repentance and amendment because he wants all people to be saved17, provided they freely wish to repent and be redeemed.
Since we have sufficiently supported and proven the need for both the human free will and the divine grace for the salvation of man, we now need to examine the means and the time that man should act in order to be offered salvation.
1 CF. Mt 11:10, Mk 1:2, Lk 7:27
2 Cf. Lk 3:3, Mk 1:4
3 1Tim 2:4
4 Cf. Job 14:4-5
5 Wisdom of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 15:14-17
6 Cf. Gen 3:17-18
7 Cf. Gen 8:21
8 Mt 7:13-14
9 Hesiod, Works and Days, v 287-292
10 Mt 11:12b
11 Mt 16:24; Mk 8:34
12 1Tim 2:4
13 John 15:5
14 John 10:9
15 Gregory Theologian: Homily 37:13, PG26, 297D
16 John Chrysostom: Commentary on the Epistle to Romans 18:5
17 Cf. 1Tim 2:4