Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States
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How does one achieve salvation? Is it by faith alone or by works alone or by both? The Holy Book of Ephesians 2:8-9 supports the first “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast." The incident of the thief on the right side of the cross supports that too.

Those who believe in salvation by faith alone base their belief on one verse or part of a verse. It is wrong to base our faith on one single verse. You have referred to the Holy Book of Ephesians 2:8-9 and stopped,  while if you  have  read the following verse, "For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them" (Eph 2:10). You would have understood.
The term faith is a multi facet term:
  • The living faith:  "Faith without works is dead" (Jas 2:20). Such dead faith, void of works, cannot save anyone, "What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?" (James 2:14). St. James also says, "Even the demons believe and tremble" (Jas 2:19), does this mean that the devils are saved?

  • Faith working through love:  "For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love" (Gal 5:6).

  • Faith and love: St. Paul says, "And though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing" (1 Cor 13:2).
Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself informed us about  Judgment Day. He will discriminate between people based on their previous performance on earth, putting  some to His right hand, and others to His left hand. "I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in" because of such good works He said to those on the right "Come, You blessed of My Father inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world" (Mt 25:31-46).

St. Peter also speaks about judgment according to works "And if you call on the Father, who without partiality judges according to each one's work, conduct yourselves throughout the time of your stay here in fear" (1 Pet 1:17).

Many take the thief on the right side of the Cross as an example of someone who has attained salvation through faith alone. This is not the case, since the thief did not only believe in the Lord in the midst of very hard circumstances, but he also declared a complete confession of the Lord, Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom" (Lk 23:42). He confessed his own sins, admitted that he deserved to be punished. He rebuked the thief on the left cross saying to him, "Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds" (Lk 23:39-41). He also evangelized in defending the Lord "but this Man has done nothing wrong" (Lk 23:41).

An excellent book addressing this topic that you can read and give to your friend is "Salvation in the Orthodox Concept" by H.H. Pope Shenouda III.
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