St. Peter of Damascus once wrote:
The fathers … kept the commandments; their successors wrote them down; but we have placed their books on the shelves. And even if we want to read them, we do not have the application to understand what is said and to put it into practice; we read them either as something incidental, or because we think that by reading them we are doing something great, thus growing full of pride. We do not realize that we incur greater condemnation if we do not put into practice what we read … And we should remember what the Lord says about the servant who knew his master’s will but failed to carry it out (cf. Lk. 12:47).
St. Peter of Damascus (The Philokalia Vol. 3 edited by Palmer, Sherrard and Ware; Faber and Faber pg. 169)
Quoted from: Milk & Honey.
St. Peter makes clear the centrality of actions, of works in the Christian life. Too often our emphasis seems to be on personal, spiritual salvation, on faith and prayer. All these things are good and necessary in a Christian life, but we must not make idols of them or emphasize them so much that we forgot that Christ preached a religion of doing for the salvation of all Creation, not just for you or me.
St. Peter reminds us that it is easy to abstract what was written long ago in the Bible and in other pious works into mere words which we do not live out. We read. We declare our faith. But we do nothing. And that is the problem because our faith cannot and does not exist separate from our works. When we read the word of God, but do not do it, we become like the servant who does not do his Master’s will and heap condemnation upon ourselves. One who believes as a Christian must necessarily act as a Christian or deny Christ’s teachings. We all, of course, fall short (I most of all), but it is important to acknowledge that we must try to live by deeds of faith, to fulfill Christ’s commandments to act with love and mercy toward others. St. James the Just taught “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17) and our Lord Jesus Christ Himself tells us in Matthew 25:31-46 that we will be judged by Him for the things we do to others in this life, in this world.
Now, all this is not to say that Christianity is a mere set of actions, that one can curse God with each breath so long as they are charitable and kind. Good works may be done without faith, but faith cannot exist without manifesting itself in good works. This is what St. John the Theologian teaches when he writes, “But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him? My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:17-18). When we have faith in the Lord, God abides in us, but when we do not act according to our faith, God does not abide in us. Faith is not merely hearing the word of God, it is doing the word of God, for as Christ Himself declared to his disciples in Luke 6:47-49, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’, and do not do what I tell you? I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them. That one is like a man building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built. But the one who hears and does not act is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the river burst against it, immediately it fell, and great was the ruin of that house.” When we do not enact Christ’s teachings through actions, we build our hope for salvation on a foundation of sand.
Good works are the manifestation of faith and are an inseparable part of faith. Faith without works is not merely dead, it cannot exist. If we love Christ, we must feed His sheep (John 21:16) and offer up the fast to God that He asked of us through his holy prophet Isaiah:
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?