Since works are necessary for salvation, would a person be saved by his works or by the grace of the Holy Spirit working in him… or by both together?
Effort and Grace Together
A person cannot be saved by his effort alone; whatever effort or labor he may have, for the Lord Jesus says, “Without Me you can do nothing” (Jhn 15:5). At the same time, grace would not save him by itself unless he responds to it because grace is not a cause for laziness, carelessness and slackness. A great example for the accompanying effort with grace is the victory over the Amalekites (Exud 17:11) when Joshua led the army to fight Amalek while Moses stood on the top of the hill holding up his hands in prayers. It is obvious that the army didn’t defeat Amalek neither through the fighting alone nor through the prayer alone. Concentrating on one of them and neglecting the other would be a mistake.
The words of the apostolic benediction, that say, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2Cor 13:14) indicate the communion between the Holy Spirit and man together. The Holy Spirit is able to save and redeem; but He wants every person to participate with Him in managing his own life. Yes the Holy Spirit alone is able to save but He does not want. It is not God’s dispensation to force us to do good because we would not be rewarded for an action done without our discretion. If the Holy Spirit works alone, there would be no single sinner on earth.
Grace does not work in us against our free will. Grace offers us help and we still have our will to respond to the work of the Holy Spirit within us, to participate in work with Him and to be led by Him; or to neglect, reject and resist His work in us. So, the Holy Scriptures warn us saying, “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God” (Eph 4:30), and “Do not quench the Spirit” (1Thes 5:19).
The Necessity of Striving
The apostle encouraged the Hebrews to strive against sin by saying, “Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Heb 12:1); then he rebuked them saying, “You have not yet resisted to bloodshed, striving against sin” (Heb 12:4). It behooves us, then, to strive… not the ordinary striving, but striving to bloodshed against sin until the end of one’s life “he who endures to the end will be saved” (Matt 10:22).
The Apostle Paul’s life was supported by grace, but he strove in his life to its end, as he says, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day” (2Tim 4:7, 8).
Some people go far in talking about the role of grace as to belittle the role of striving, depending on the verse which says, “It is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy” (Rom 9:16). For sure, this verse does not mean that God’s mercy grants us free salvation and transfers us to the heavenly kingdom without any effort or good will on our side because this may lead to laziness and slackness. The meaning of that verse is that we cannot attain the kingdom just by willing and striving, without the divine grace, without the mercy of God, and without the communion of the Holy Spirit. The right thing is that we have to will and to run yet we believe that it is not of him who wills nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy.
In fact the Apostle Paul, who said “not of him who runs,” said also “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race” and attained the crown of righteousness as a reward for his running and his good fight. Moreover, he called us all to this running and striving by saying, “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it” (1Cor 9:24)… and he declared the importance of this striving by saying, “I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified” (1Cor 9:27). It is obvious that St. Paul himself ran and pressed on, though he was filled with the Holy Spirit and grace worked in him more than anyone else.
St. Paul also says, “Neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase” (1Cor 3:7). Indeed, it is God who gives the increase, but we have to plant and water. Then, we must not abstain from planting and watering, waiting for God to give the increase. Therefore, we have to run and press on and to fight the good fight; and God will bless our labor.
The Spiritual Striving
St. Paul describes the spiritual warfare declaring that, “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places,” advising us to take up the whole armor of God (Eph 6:10-18). So, we ought to strive depending on God. God’s weapons have their power but unless we use them, we will be defeated by our spiritual enemies. Those persons, whom St. Paul mentioned even weeping in (Phil 3:18), could have used such weapons; but they deviated towards sin and submitted to it because they neglected using these weapons.
St. Peter also speaks about this spiritual warfare saying, “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. Resist him, steadfast in the faith” (1Pet 5:8, 9). What he means is we have to resist Satan i.e. we ought to strive, be firm and brave but we should not depend on our power. This verse includes both sides; striving in resisting the devil, and grace upon which depends the one who strives through faith. Thus, St. Paul emphasized the need of strive and faith when he advised his disciple Timothy by saying, “Fight the good fight of faith” (1Tim 6:12).
The greatness of David in his battle with Goliath is shown by depending on the name of the Lord, as he said to Goliath, “You come to me with a sword, with a spear, and with a javelin. But I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hand” (1Sam 17:45, 46). At the same time, he did his role of striving and fighting… So, “He chose for himself five smooth stones from the brook, and put them in a shepherd’s bag, in a pouch which he had, and his sling was in his hand. And he drew near to the Philistine… David hurried and ran toward the army to meet the Philistine. Then David put his hand in his bag and took out a stone; and he slung it and struck the Philistine in his forehead, so that the stone sank into his forehead, and he fell on his face to the earth” (1Sam 17:40-49). It is obvious that the Lord delivered Goliath into the hand of David, but David had to fight to achieve victory. Therefore, we could say, “It is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy” (Rom 9:16) because there must be striving and fight but at the end, victory is to be ascribed to God.
Fighting can never be without a weapon; and a weapon by itself, without fighting and without a skillful fighter, cannot bring victory. Both are inseparable as St. Paul says, “If anyone competes in athletics, he is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules” (2Tim 2:5). Thus we have to strive according to the rules in order to be saved and crowned with the crown of life.