Written by Vladimir Moss



    “The grace of God that bringeth salvation unto all men” (Titus 2.11), proclaims St. Paul in today’s Theophany epistle. For with the coming of grace, the law, which was given only to the Jews, was abrogated, and all people of all nations, classes and conditions were able to enter the Kingdom of God provided only that they believed in Christ and received Holy Baptism.  Grace is a gift of God – God Himself in His Divine energies – that enables us to escape, sin, death and the devil. But let us inquire a little more closely: what is grace, and what is the law, which, with the Coming of Christ, has not only been abrogated, proclaimed to be unnecessary, but according to St. Paul is an obstacle to salvation if seen as a condition of it? “For I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain” (Galatians2.21)? 


     St. Theophan the Recluse, the inspired Russian bishop-theologian and ascetic who is commemorated on this day, tells us that “the grace of God” is “the economy of salvation in Jesus Christ, in His incarnation, in His sufferings, death, resurrection and ascension into heaven, and the descent of the Holy Spirit, in the foundation of the Apostolic Church of God on earth, entrance into which is open to all: come, receive the teaching of the faith, sanctify yourself by the sacraments, and then live a holy life under the leadership of the pastors, whether you are a slave or free. The grace of the Holy Spirit brings believers to the exerting of their moral forces, for the aim of grace is to make us morally good in everything. It gives us, not bare knowledge alone, but remakes our life, teaching us like children, educating us in word and deed.”[1]


     The aim of the Law of Moses, as set out in the first five books of the Old Testament, was quite different. It was “our schoolteacher to Christ” (Galatians 3.24) in that it exposed sin, revealing to men what was good and what was evil – but without being able to cure it, still less give saving grace to those who followed it. The Law of Moses was written on tablets and in books. Christians also have a Law, which is proclaimed by Christ in the Gospel, especially such passages as the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes. But the Law of Christ is inscribed in our very hearts through the Spirit we receive in Baptism; it is apprehended internally, by grace, and not by external teaching – although external teaching undoubtedly strengthens and deepens the internal implanting. For the Lord says through Jeremiah: “I will put My Law in their minds, and write it on their hearts” (31.33). 


     There was a fearful curse attaching to those that followed the Law of Moses. “For as many as are of the works of the Law [that is, see their salvation in following its commandments} are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the Law, to do them’” (Galatians 3.10; Deuteronomy 27.26). But Christ destroyed that curse through His exemplary life and unjust death, enabling those who accept His Law to live in freedom, not trembling under a curse or enslaved to a taskmaster-law that was almost impossible to please.


     The Law of Moses was “glorious”, according to St. Paul, because it came from God. Nevertheless, it was “a ministry of death, written and engraved on stones” (II Corinthians 3.7), and so was destined to pass away when the Lawgiver, Christ Himself, would come, Whose ministry of life made possible the mystical inscription of the Giver of Life, the Holy Spirit, upon our hearts. “Now the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (II Corinthians 3.17).




     The relationship between grace and law became an especially important theme during the Protestant Reformation, where both terms were radically redefined in such a way as to create a new and radical heresy. “Grace” was reinterpreted by Luther to mean simply the prompting of the individual Christian’s heart – his own, first of all: as he said to the papal legate Cajetan in Augsburg in October 1518: “I must believe according to the testimony of my conscience”. And who or what was it that could verify that the promptings of Luther’s heart were truly the promptings of the Holy Spirit? Nothing and nobody…


     He demonstrated his boldness again in January, 1521, when Holy Roman Emperor Charles V summoned him to appear before him at the Imperial Diet in Worms. Having refused to recant his opinions, Luther pronounced the famous words: “I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may God help me. Amen.”  


     These words represent the essence of his creed and of his revolutionary challenge to the whole of Christendom. For by placing his individual conscience above every collective authority, whether secular or ecclesiastical, he undermined all authority, replacing it with the most individualist kind of anarchism, covered by the honourable name of “conscience”. This individualism – which, as we have seen, had its roots in the Renaissance - is the real dogma of Protestantism, more fundamental than its other official teachings.


     Of course, Luther also appealed to Scripture, to the Word of God, as a figleaf for his anarchism. For what was Holy Scripture and what did it really say? Luther himself would judge that… “Notoriously,” writes John Barton, “he went further than almost any Christian before or since in concluding that certain books were not an authentic expression of the gospel, and when he translated the Bible he removed them to an appendix. The books in question are Esther (demoted because it nowhere mentions God), Hebrews, Jamesand Revelation. Conversely, Luther was prepared to say which books were the most important, the ‘truest and noblest books’: JohnRomansGalatiansEphesians1 Peter and 1 John… Thus Luther’s criticism of authority reached even to criticism of the authority of parts of the Bible itself, in the name of principles derived from what he took to be the Bible’s overall drift.”[2]


     However, by making every individual believer the interpreter of Scripture, Luther undermined scriptural authority also. Scripture, the written word of God, was only a seeming authority, a fig-leaf to hide the real authority, the believer’s self-will. The only authority left was the naked ego… And yet even the holy Apostle Paul did not rely on his own individual conscience and revelation alone, but checked his convictions against those of the other apostles. As he writes: “I communicated to them that Gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, but privately to those who were of reputation, lest by any chance I might run, or had run, in vain” (Galatians 2.2). For Paul knew that although he had received the Gospel from the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, he could still err because of the sin that still dwelt in him as it dwells in all mortal men. For the truth is given collectively to the Church, “the pillar and ground of the Truth” (I Timothy 3.15), whose existence and authority will survive even the gates of hell (Matthew 16.18). But any individual member of the Church, no matter who he is, may fall away from the truth. That is why St. Paul disciplined his body, “lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified” (I Corinthians 9.27) as a witness to the truth. “So let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (I Corinthians 10.12).


     Luther’s attitude is what we may call Protestant rationalism; it was born in the soil of Catholic rationalism, which placed the mind of one man, the Pope, above the Catholic (but not necessarily Roman) consciousness of the Church, which has the Mind of Christ. Protestantism rejected Papism, but did not reject its underlying principle. Thus instead of placing the mind of one man above the Church, it placed the mind of every man, every believer, above it. 


     As Luther himself declared: “In matters of faith each Christian is for himself Pope and Church.”[3]


     And so, writes Archbishop Hilarion Troitsky, Protestantism “placed a papal tiara on every German professor and, with its countless number of popes, completely destroyed the concept of the Church, substituting faith with the reason of each separate personality.”[4]


     As Frank Furedi writes, “His defiant stand, would eventually provide legitimation for disobeying all forms of authority….


     “Did Luther really hurl the legendary words – ‘Here I stand, so help me God, I can do no other’ – at his accusers? In a sense it does not matter. Luther did not merely assert the authority of individual conscience to justify his own actions: he advanced a compelling case for the value of people being able to act in accordance with the dictates of their conscience. In so doing his argument implicitly called into question the right of external authority to exercise power over the inner life of people.


     “The distinction that Luther drew about the nature of authority represented an important step in the conceptualisation of a new limit on its exercise. His Treatise on Good Works (1520) asserted that ‘the power of the temporal authority, whether it does right or wrong, cannot harm the soul’. This idealisation of the soul and its protected status from external authority encouraged European culture to devote greater interest in individual conscience and eventually to endow the self with moral authority.


     “In helping to free the inner person from the power of external authority, Luther’s theology contributed to the weakening of the very concept of external authority, including that of divine authority [my italics – V.M.]. The freeing of the inner person from the power of external authority restricted the exercise of absolute authority in all its forms.”[5]


     The Russian Slavophile Ivan Vasilievich Kireyevsky wrote: “The main trait distinguishing Orthodox Christianity from the Latin confession and the Protestant teaching of the faith in their influence on the intellectual and moral development of man consists in the fact that the Orthodox Church strictly adheres to the boundary between Divine Revelation and human reason, that it preserves without any change the dogmas of Revelation as they have existed from the first days of Christianity and have been confirmed by the Ecumenical Councils, not allowing the hand of man to touch their holiness or allowing human reason to modify their meaning and expression in accordance with its temporary systems. But at the same time the Orthodox Church does not restrict reason in its natural activity and in its free striving to search out the truths not communicated to it by Revelation; but it does not give to any rational system or plausible view of science the status of infallible truth, ascribing to them an identical inviolability and holiness to that possessed by Divine Revelation. 


     “The Latin church, on the contrary, does not know any firm boundaries between human reason and Divine Revelation. It ascribes to its visible head or to a local council the right to introduce a new dogma into the number of those revealed and confirmed by the Ecumenical Councils; to some systems of human reason it ascribes the exceptional right of ascendancy over others, and in this way, even if it does not directly destroy the revealed dogmas, it changes their meaning, while it restricts human reason in the freedom of its natural activity and limits its sacred right and duty to seek from a rapprochement between human truths and Divine truths, natural truths and revealed ones.


     “The Protestant teachings of the faith are based on the same annihilation of the boundary between human reason and Divine revelation, with this difference from the Latin teaching, however, that they do not raise any human point of view or systematic mental construction to the level of Divine Revelation, thereby restricting the activity of reason; but, on the contrary, they give human reason ascendancy over the Divine dogmas, changing them or annihilating them in accordance with the personal reasoning of man…


     “It is natural that the follower of the Protestant confession, recognizing reason to be the chief foundation of truth, should in accordance with the measure of his education more and more submit his faith itself to his personal reasoning, until the concepts of natural reason take the place for him of all the Traditions of Divine Revelation and the Holy Apostolic Church.


     “[However,] where only pure Divine Revelation is recognized to be higher than reason – Revelation which man cannot alter in accordance with his own reasonings, but with which he can only bring his reasoning into agreement, - there, naturally, the more educated a man or a people is, the more its concepts will be penetrated with the teaching of the faith, for the truth is one and the striving to find this oneness amidst the variety of the cognitive and productive actions of the mind is the constant law of all development. But in order to bring the truths of reason into agreement with the truth of Revelation that is above reason a dual activity of reason is necessary. It is not enough to arrange one’s rational concepts in accordance with the postulates of faith, to choose those that agree with them and exclude those that contradict them, and thereby purify them of all contradiction: it is also necessary to raise the very mode of rational activity to the level at which reason can sympathise with faith and where both spheres merge into one seamless contemplation of the truth. Such is the aim determining the direction of the mental development of the Orthodox Christian, and the inner consciousness of this sought-after region of mental activity is constantly present in every movement of his reason, the breathing of his mental life…”[6]


     Protesting all the time, - and too much, - that he was being faithful to scriptural truth, Luther followed what he thought was his heart and his conscience in preference to the Holy Scriptures. He forgot that “the heart is deceitful above all things” (Jeremiah 17.9), and that “no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation” (II Peter 1.20). He wanted to be free of all authority, deceiving himself that he had the Holy Spirit, which alone gives truth and therefore freedom from authority.




     Luther’s revolutionary attitude to authority – that is, to the question where grace and truth ultimately reside – necessarily went together with an equally revolutionary attitude to the Law. He rejected the Law of Moses, of course. But he also rejected the Law of Christ in many points. For example, he rejected the institution of monasticism, although virginity and monasticism had been practised from the earliest days of Christianity. This was partly because he, a monk, wanted to marry a nun (which he did). More fundamentally, however, Luther felt free to reject everything, whether written in the Scriptures or passed down in Tradition, that did not agree with his own “conscience”.


     There were, of course, some things worthy of rejection the corrupted tradition of the Catholics. Thus his first protest was against an unquestionably evil work, the practice of indulgences, from which was derived his teaching on the superiority of faith to works… Now the practice of indulgences was based on the belief that “as soon as the coin in the coffer rings,/The soul from purgatory springs”. Such abuses were the soil out of which Lutheranism sprang. As Jacques Barzun writes: “The priest, instead of being a teacher, was ignorant; the monk, instead of helping to save the world by his piety, was an idle profiteer; the bishop, instead of supervising the care of souls in his diocese was a politician and a businessman. One of them here or there might be pious and a scholar – he showed that goodness was not impossible. But too often the bishop was a boy of twelve, his influential family having provided early for his future happiness. The system was rotten…”[7]


     But it was not simply a question of the hypocrisy of so many clergy. More radically, the Lutherans did not see the need for clergy at all. As Simon Schama writes, “they attacked the received wisdom that only the priest can consecrate the Host as an unlawful usurpation, and they launched that attack with startling vehemence. How could a priest have the power to undo what God had already decided? The decision on the fate of a poor sinner was the Lord’s alone, and the notion that masses, chantries, pilgrimages and penances could do anything about it was the height of sacrilegious presumption. All the good works and alms-giving in the world would cut no ice with the Almighty if in his infinite mercy he decided to save the most miserable transgressor. All that was asked, as St. Paul had insisted, was that the sinner surrender himself to the inscrutable but infinitely compassionate grace of God. Faith in that mercy, faith in the Bible and faith that the sacrifice of Jesus had been sufficient (without the intercession of the saints) was enough. Solus fides. Faith alone.”[8]


     This denial of the necessity for clergy and their ministrations led to the teaching that good works – especially such hypocritical good works as those that earned papal indulgences – were not necessary for salvation. In fact, according to Luther, sin is so deeply rooted in human nature that it cannot be extirpated. Nevertheless, salvation is given to us by faith in Christ’s sacrifice, which wipes out all sin without the necessity of good works. “Faith alone,” wrote Luther in The Freedom of a Christian (1520), “without works, justifies, frees and saves.” For that reason Luther rejected the Epistle of James and Revelation because of their emphasis on the importance of good works – the first example of his refusal to accept Holy Scripture if it did not accord with his teaching. Since faith alone justifies the sinner, why undertake good works such as fasting, virginity and alms-giving? And so the Reformation became, as Jacob Burckhardt said, not the restoration of a discipline that the Catholics had violated, but an escape from discipline…[9]


     The Protestant escape from discipline manifested itself in three ways. First, as we have seen, in escape from the obligation to follow the conciliar conscience of the Church – hence the Protestant doctrine of the infallibility of the individual conscience and the individual’s interpretation of Scripture. The Holy Fathers were not authorities either - Luther called St. John Chrysostom “only a foolish babbler”. Secondly, in escape from the obligation to do good works or practice asceticism. And thirdly, in escape from the obligation to obey not only ecclesiastical, but also secular authorities, which we do not find in Luther himself (the princes were his main supporters), but in many more radical Protestants, especially the Calvinists. Taken together, these allow us to define the fundamental essence of Protestantism as escape from the moral law, from the Church and from the State – in other words, from all authority


     With regard to the most basic of good works, participation in the sacraments, the Lutherans decreed that baptism was to be retained as obligatory, together with some form of Eucharistic service; but the significance and centrality of these sacraments to the Christian life was greatly diminished, and in general the very idea that matter can be sanctified by the Spirit in the form of icons, relics, holy water, holy oil and all the symbols and ceremonies of Catholic worship, was discarded. 


     The Swiss Reformer Zwingli, who greatly influenced the first Anglican Archbishop Cranmer, rejected the belief that the Eucharist was, after consecration, the Body and Blood of Christ, treating it as a service of remembrance, a memorial meal, no more. Luther did believe in the Body and Blood of Christ; but he thought that it coexisted with the bread and the wine. So he did not believe in what the Catholics called Transubstantiation.


     One might have expected that the Reformers would here encounter some difficulties, in that if, as William Tyndale said, “The scripture hath but one sense, which is the literal sense”, then there could be no doubt that the Eucharist was the Body and Blood of Christ insofar as Christ said as much clearly and unambiguously in the Holy Scriptures (Matthew 26.26-28; John 6.53-56). Moreover, the whole of Church tradition, in both East and West, had asserted for the last 1500 years that these passages were indeed to be interpreted literally. But the Protestants rejected the literal interpretation, thereby showing that their real motivation was not obedience to Scripture alone, but revolution – the overthrow of traditional Christianity by individual “conscience”.


     Nothing was sacred for the Protestants, but only the disembodied, thinking mind or “conscience” of the individual believer – as long as he was one of the elect...




     In conclusion: while Grace has swept away the Law of Moses, replacing it with the Law of Christ, which is inscribed, not upon tablets and books, but on the hearts of men, it nevertheless remains vitally true that the promptings of one’s heart must be checked against the Holy Scriptures and Tradition of the Church. If “the vessel of grace”, the great Apostle Paul was moved to check his revelation of the truth with that of the other leading apostles, must we not check our own “revelations” against the authority of the Church, which is “the pillar and ground of the Truth” (I Timothy 3.15)?


January 6/19, 2022.

Holy Theophany.




[1] St. Theophan, Tolkovanie Poslanij sv. Apostola Pavla (Interpretation of the Epistles of the holy Apostle Paul), Moscow, 2002, pp. 641-642,

[2] Barton, A History of the Bible, London: Allen Lane, 2019, pp. 394-395.

[3] Martin Luthers Werke Kritische Gesamtausgabe, Weimar, 1885, 405, 35. Quoted by Deacon John Whiteford in ORTHODOX@LISTSERV.INDIANA.EDU, September 6, 1999.

[4] Troitsky, Christianity or the Church?, Jordanville: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1971, p. 28. 

[5] Furedi, “The Invention of Individual Freedom”, History Today, April, 2017, p. 7. 

[6] Kireyevsky, “Indifferentizm” (“Indifferentism”), in Razum na puti k istine (Reason on the Path to Truth), Moscow, 2002, pp. 88-91. 

[7] Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence, 1500 to the Present, New York: Perennial, 2000, p. 11. 

[8] Schama, op. cit., pp. 238-239. 

[9] Burckhardt, Judgements on History. 

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