Indication of the Way into the Kingdom of Heaven. By Saint Innocent of Alaska. Jordanville, NY: Holy Trinity Monastery, 2006. 48 pp. Paper, $6.95.
St. Innocent of Alaska (1797-1879) was a Russian Orthodox bishop and missionary to Alaska. This short work was written as a catechetical tool for the natives who lived on the Aleutian Islands. It is now often given by Orthodox Christians to Evangelicals as an introduction to Orthodox soteriology.
Innocent’s presentation of the Orthodox doctrine of salvation can be commended for properly recognizing that our ultimate destiny lies not in self-satisfaction, aggrandizement, or material prosperity, but in being with God forever in eternity:
People were not created merely to live here on earth like animals that disappear after their death, but to live with God and in God, and to live not for a hundred or a thousand years, but to live eternally (p. 5).
In particular, our ultimate purpose in life is to glorify God: “you exist in this world solely in order, with all your actions, with all your life and with your whole being, to glorify His holy and great Name” (p. 21).
Innocent also exhibits a healthy recognition of humanity’s sinful condition. He holds back no punches in describing the depth of our fallenness:
When the Lord is pleased to reveal to you the state of your soul, then you begin to see clearly and to feel acutely that with all your virtues your heart is corrupt and perverted, your soul is defiled and you yourself are only a slave of sin and the passions which have completely mastered you and do not allow you to draw near God. You also begin to see that there is nothing truly good in you, and even if you have some good works they are all mixed with sin and are not the fruit of true love, but are the product of various passions and circumstances… (p. 23).
In fact, such is the depth of our sin, that even our best works are, if examined carefully, not very good at all:
In fact, if we examine our good works more attentively and even our greatest virtues, will many of them prove to deserve to be called Christian virtues? For example, how often do we give alms or material help to our brethren from vainglory or self-love like the Pharisees… (p. 35).
Given this sin problem, Innocent touches briefly upon an important reason for the incarnation, explaining that our sins incurred a debt so great that only Christ’s death could serve as payment for them: “By His passion (suffering) and death Jesus Christ has redeemed us from the debts which we had to pay to God and which we should never have been able to pay” (p. 9).
Lastly, it is notable that Innocent appears to be aware of the dangers of legalism. Thus, he warns against thinking that our works give us some claim on God’s grace and mercy:
And if a person is pure in heart and chaste in body, then the Holy Spirit enters into him and possesses his heart and soul (if only the person does not trust in his own good works and boast of them, or consider that he has a right to receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit, to receive them as a due reward) (p. 35).
One could gladly agree to all of these insights, though I wish that Innocent had proved them by a careful exegesis of Scripture.
Nevertheless, despite these beliefs, Innocent surprisingly fails to draw the obvious conclusion about how to receive eternal life. One would have thought that he would dismiss any scheme of salvation by works. After all, how could a “slave of sin,” with “nothing truly good in [him],” whose good works are “not very good at all,” and whose sin debts were so great that God Himself had to pay them, think that he could be saved by his own labors? And yet that is precisely what Innocent concludes. Although Innocent says that salvation ultimately depends on God giving us His mercy, because God only gives His mercy to the one who strives for it, our salvation fundamentally depends on our own efforts. Our works may not save us in and of themselves, but we cannot be saved without them.
This skews Innocent’s understanding of the purpose for the incarnation. He does not think that Christ came to make a propitiation for sin so that we might be given the gift of everlasting life through faith apart from works. Rather, he thinks the incarnation makes possible what was once impossible. Though we couldn’t save ourselves through works before, now, with Christ’s help, we can. As Innocent says: “by the Grace and merits of Jesus Christ we can now go into the Kingdom of Heaven and receive support and help along the way” (p. 10). Christ leads the way, and gives us strength for the journey. But successfully completing the journey is up to us: “Christian, your salvation or perdition depends on your own will!” (p. 16). Everything depends on whether or not we synergistically cooperate with God’s grace. One could say that while works are not sufficient for our salvation (only God’s grace is sufficient), they are nevertheless necessary. Hence, throughout the Indication, Innocent repeatedly emphasizes that our salvation depends on works:
We can only say that those who believe in Jesus Christ and follow His commandments will, after their death, live with the Angels, the Righteous, and the Saints in heaven, and will see God face to face (p. 10).
The Kingdom of Heaven is a reward, and the very greatest reward; and where is a reward given free and for nothing? So, if it is necessary to labor and struggle to get an earthly and temporal reward, how much more must it be necessary in order to get a heavenly and eternal reward? (p. 28).
…work and labor for your salvation while it is yet day, for the night will come, and then no one can work (p. 45).
But when the doors of the heavenly Kingdom are closed to you, that is, if you die without repentance and good works, then however much you may want and however much you may try to enter, you will not be admitted (p. 48).
Indeed, Innocent shows that he is so committed to works salvation that he even takes the story of the thief on the cross as proof that one cannot be saved without at least some suffering and effort:
Jesus Christ took into paradise even a robber, who repented only when he was actually dying. But was it without suffering and without affliction that the robber entered paradise? No! He was hung on a cross… the Lord can show us the same great and unspeakable mercies; He can regard our last sufferings as a purification and as a kind of struggle on the way to the heavenly Kingdom, especially when, like the robber, we at the same time offer repentance for our sins and receive with faith the last sacraments (p. 45).
The Indication goes on to explain that laboring for salvation means following Jesus, and following Jesus means obeying Him in all things, especially by undertaking a path of suffering. And despite everything Innocent says about our sinfulness, and about our lack of works, he insists that the way into the Kingdom of Heaven requires flawless obedience:
To follow Christ means also to obey the word of Jesus Christ. Therefore we must listen to, believe and fulfill all that Jesus Christ as said in the Gospel and through His Apostles, and we must do all this without philosophizing and in simplicity of heart (p. 27, italics added).
Without such obedience, we are damned: “So, brethren, if you wish to be in the Kingdom of Heaven, you
must go the way Jesus Christ went; otherwise you will be lost, and lost forever” (p. 30).
However much light it may shed on Orthodox theology, Innocent’s Indication is a poor guide to the gospel. One could say that Innocent may have helpful sanctification advice, but fatal justification advice. That is to say, a Free Grace believer will immediately recognize the core error of Innocent’s theology. Much of what he says is true…if he were speaking about how to be progressively sanctified in this life, and how to earn rewards in the life to come. But since Innocent believes that one must work in order to be eternally saved, he preaches a false gospel of works salvation.
One wonders whether Innocent ever carefully studied either John’s doctrine of everlasting life, or Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith alone. For both John and Paul are quite clear that everlasting life is the believer’s present possession, given freely by faith in Christ, apart from works (John 3:16, 36, 5:24, 10:28, 11:25-26; Rom 3:20; Eph 2:8-9). Rewards, by contrast, are earned by our faithful works, and bestowed in the future (Matt 16:27; Luke 14:14; Rev 22:12).
Moreover, Free Grace believers will have little trouble discerning that the bishop’s confusion arises because he fails to distinguish between basic Biblical categories, such as between (i) eternal life and eternal rewards, (ii) the Great White Throne Judgment and the Judgment Seat of Christ, (iii) justification and sanctification, and (iv) eternal salvation and temporal salvation. Since Innocent fails to make these distinctions, he wrongly takes all of the NT commands calling us to sanctification, fellowship with God, and heavenly rewards, as conditions for receiving eternal life.
It is of the utmost importance that the Free Grace message be preached to Orthodox believers, especially in those areas of the world that were formerly under Communist rule, and which are now reportedly returning to the Orthodox Church in great numbers. These souls desperately need to hear the gospel message, and it is helpful to become informed about their assumptions concerning salvation. To that end, this booklet is very helpful. I recommend it as a library reference.
Director of Publications
Grace Evangelical Society