Working Man


We recently had another record Power Ball lottery. I believe the cash prize was almost half a billion dollars. With that kind of money at stake, many people who never buy a ticket are greatly tempted to do so. It’s easy to dream of how nice it would be to pay off all of our bills, help family and friends, and never ever worry about money again. On the negative side, you discover that winning the lottery often did not result in a fairy tale life of financial freedom. You read stories of divorce, murder, drug abuse, broken families and even poverty.  We are sure that such things would never happen to us, since we are kind, generous, and loving Orthodox people. This feeling flies in the face of the many warnings that our Lord gave about wealth –something about a camel.

Which is better – a paycheck or a lottery cash prize? I’m not talking about the amount of money I earn versus the money that the lottery offers. I could never earn that much in several lifetimes. What I mean is how you obtain the money. A paycheck is the result of your labor. A lottery cash prize is the result of other people’s labor.

The reason that I bring this up is that in Romans 6, St. Paul uses this idea of wage and free gifts to talk about salvation. He says that sin pays a wage and the payment is death, but that eternal life in Christ Jesus is a free gift. This turns things upside down. I thought that I had to work for eternal life, now I hear that it is a free gift. Quite the opposite, I am working for sin, and all that I will get for it is death. This is foolishness! Why in the world would anyone work and sweat and toil for death, when there is a free gift of eternal life? Well, look around and take notice. Most of the human race is working and toiling and fretting to receive a reward. Little do we know that we work for sin and will be paid the wage of death. Like all work, wages are paid often, and death comes to us, but only in part. Full payment will come later.

How is the gift of salvation free? Well, a true gift is given simply out of love for the one to whom it is given. If there is any sense of obligation, then it is not truly a gift. Jesus Christ was a pure and absolute gift, given because God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son. You and I did nothing to deserve it. In fact there is nothing that we could have done to be worthy of such a gift. All we have to do is receive the gift and eternal life is ours.

I realize that for the Orthodox, this may sound a bit like Protestant theology which is sometimes characterized as “believe and receive.” How is salvation free, when we talk a about the importance of prayer, fasting, study and church attendance as essential for the attainment of holiness? The Bible says, “Without holiness, no one will see the Lord,” and holiness seems to take a lot of work.

Let’s review.  We work for sin and receive death as payment. Fair enough because what else could sin give us really? On the other hand, we receive a free gift of salvation in Christ Jesus, but we have to work for it.  Clear as mud?

It’s simple really. If someone gives me a gift, no matter how wonderful it is or how thankful I am, it will not change who or what I am. I did nothing to earn the gift and other than gratitude, nothing more is expected. For the gift of salvation, I could not pray enough, fast enough or come to church often enough to deserve it. This is what is meant by the idea that we are not saved by our works. The Father loves us freely and gives good gifts to His children. Yet, with such a gift, is nothing expected of me? I am grateful for the gift of salvation, but is that all that is required?

The gift of salvation is not one to be placed on a shelf or even in a place of honor. This gift is meant to be actualized and put into operation. When we unpack this free gift, we find wonderful things. We find forgiveness and everlasting love. We find the power and the grace of the Holy Spirit. We find truth. All the things needed are there to free us from our slavery to sin and death. To attain this freedom, we must place these spiritual tools in our souls and bodies, and use them to attain holiness.

The Orthodox call this “theosis.”  It is a pilgrimage of transformation and it is a journey that we must not stop. The journey begins with a free gift, but the giving is just the first step. The Master said, “I am the Way….”  and those who have received the gift walk in that way.  As we walk, freedom becomes ever more powerful until we reach the end. What is the end of it?  Paul puts it this way: ” the return you get is sanctification and its end, eternal life.  Sanctification is another way to speak of the journey to holiness and the end of holiness is eternal life.

A wage or a gift.  When it comes to money, I think I prefer a wage over the lottery. When it comes to salvation, I think I’ll take the gift. Then I’ll be a working man for holiness.

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