Can we save ourselves? (Reflections on Gregory of Nyssa #5)

James Tissot (1836—1902), ‘The Pharisee and the Publican’ (detail). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tissot_The_Pharisee_and_the_publican_Brooklyn.jpg
James Tissot (1836—1902), ‘The Pharisee and the Publican’ (detail). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tissot_The_Pharisee_and_the_publican_Brooklyn.jpg

In the second of our reflections on Gregory of Nyssa’s third sermon on the Lord’s Prayer, we ask, “As human beings, can we save ourselves?”

Gregory of Nyssa was a fourth-century Christian theologian and one of the so-called ‘Three Cappadocians’ who made such a significant contribution to orthodox Trinitarian belief.

You can find a brief account of the life of Gregory of Nyssa in my first article here.

In our series of reflections on Gregory of Nyssa we have been working through his recorded sermons on the Lord’s Prayer.

Sermon #3 on the Lord’s Prayer: “Hallowed by Thy Name, Thy Kingdom come”

I mentioned last time that it takes Gregory a while in this sermon to come round to addressing the words of Scripture, “Hallowed be your name, your kingdom come” (Matthew 6:9-10; Luke 11:2).

When he does come round to it, it becomes very clear that as human beings we cannot save ourselves.

“[H]e who has prepared himself so that he may boldly call God his Father is precisely he who is clad in such a robe as described in this sermon, […] for he has made their virtues his own adornment.”

Gregory of Nyssa, Sermon #3 on the Lord’s Prayer

That is not to say that Gregory would subscribe to the Reformation doctrine that justification is imputed to us unworthy sinners on account of faith, entirely without the works of the law. Nay rather, it is very obvious from this sermon that Gregory sees righteousness, salvation, as something which is necessarily produced in our lives as God’s Spirit enables us to live bearing the fruit of holiness to God. Thus, describing the form of life of the person who approaches God in prayer, he states:—

We said that he who has prepared himself so that he may boldly call God his Father is precisely he who is clad in such a robe as described in this sermon. He rings with bells and is adorned with pomegranates; his breast shines with the rays of the commandments and he bears on his shoulders the patriarchs and prophets themselves instead of only their names [like the high priest in Exodus 28]; for he has made their virtues his own adornment.[1]

In spite of Gregory’s implication that we are saved in part by what we do, yet there is also here the clear setting-forth of mankind’s own entire inability to save ourselves without divine grace operating in us. In this way Gregory partly anticipates Augustine of Hippo’s later formulation of divine grace as entirely necessarily even for us to believe and to begin the Christian life.

Thus, speaking of the futility of our own efforts without God’s grace working in us, Gregory says:—

…[W]hat does it mean to pray: Hallowed be Thy Name, Thy Kingdom come? Perhaps by using such form of prayer the Word intends to set forth something like this: namely that human nature is too weak to achieve anything good, and that therefore we can obtain nothing of the things for which we are anxious unless the good be accomplished in us by Divine aid.[2]

One is naturally reminded of Thomas Cranmer’s wonderful words in the Book of Common Prayer:—

Almighty and most merciful Father; We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders. Spare thou those, O God, who confess their faults. Restore thou those who are penitent; According to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesus our Lord. And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake; That we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, To the glory of thy holy Name. Amen.[3]

Continuing in the same vein, Gregory goes on to say:—

“[I]f we ask that the Kingdom of God may come to us, the meaning of our request is this: […] Let us no more be tyrannized by evil so that the adversary may not prevail against me and make me his captive through sin. But may Thy Kingdom come to me, so that the passions which still rule me so mercilessly may depart from me, or rather may be altogether annihilated.”

Gregory of Nyssa, Sermon #3 on the Lord’s Prayer

So if we ask that the Kingdom of God may come to us, the meaning of our request is this: I would be a stranger to corruption and liberated from death; would that I were freed from the shackles of sin and that death no longer lorded it over me. Let us no more be tyrannized by evil so that the adversary may not prevail against me and make me his captive through sin. But may Thy Kingdom come to me, so that the passions which still rule me so mercilessly may depart from me, or rather may be altogether annihilated.[4]

We see in these short fragments Gregory’s recognition of our human helplessness, and even his own sense of personal unworthiness. However much he might have been a model Christian (and he was[5]), he recognizes that he and we alike are still — without God’s intervening grace through his Holy Spirit — “miserable offenders.”

Christians in the West are often accused of being self-righteous. We are — it is alleged — those who consider ourselves superior to others, and who therefore sit in judgement on everybody else.

Perhaps on occasions this view of Christians is justified. I’m sure there are people out there who would describe themselves as Christians who do take this superior view. Where that is so, I would have to question what is actually being taught by their local church; the New Testament allows us to take no such view.

“The fact is — and as Gregory himself makes very clear in this sermon — we Christians recognize ourselves to be ‘miserable offenders,’ having no more personal worthiness of ‘being saved’ than the most notorious lawbreaker or the ardent and vocal atheist.”

I suspect that more often, though, this presentation of Christians as self-righteous is either a wilful perversion of what we believe in order to mock Christianity, or simply based on misunderstanding.

The fact is — and as Gregory himself makes very clear in this sermon — we Christians recognize ourselves to be “miserable offenders,” having no more personal worthiness of ‘being saved’ than the most notorious lawbreaker or the ardent and vocal atheist.

That is, we recognize that we are saved by no merit of our own, but simply by the atoning death and glorious resurrection of our Lord Jesus. Or, as the Apostle Paul puts it in his Letter to the Romans:—

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
Romans 7:21-25a[6]

 

The reflections in this series are based on Gregory’s sermons on the Lord’s Prayer and on the Beatitudes, which can be found in Ancient Christian Writers No. 18: St. Gregory of Nyssa: The Lord’s Prayer; The Beatitudes (tr. Hilda C. Graef). © 1954 Rev. Johannes Quasten and Rev. Joseph C. Plumpe. Paulist Press, Mahwah, NJ.

You can read Gregory of Nyssa’s Third Sermon on the Lord’s Prayer online in another translation at https://www.orthodoxprayer.org/Articles_files/GregoryNyssa-Homily3%20Lords%20Prayer.html.

 

 

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Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

 


[1] Ancient Christian Writers No. 18: St. Gregory of Nyssa: The Lord’s Prayer; The Beatitudes (tr. Hilda C. Graef). © 1954 Rev. Johannes Quasten and Rev. Joseph C. Plumpe. Paulist Press, Mahwah, NJ (henceforth referred to as ‘ACW 18’): p.47

[2] Ibid., p.48

[3] http://justus.anglican.org/resources/bcp/1928/MP.htm. For the original words, from the 1552 version of the prayer book, see http://justus.anglican.org/resources/bcp/1552/MP_1552.htm.

[4] ACW 18, p.51

[5] See, e.g., ‘St. Gregory of Nyssa: A Symbol and Example of Christian Unity’, and Wikipedia’s biography of Gregory.

[6] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Romans+7%3A21-25&version=ESVUK. It is worth our noting that Romans 7:7-25, in which this passage occurs, is one of the most difficult and controversial passages to interpret in the entire New Testament. Is Paul speaking here of his pre-Christian experience of being encumbered by sin, or his experience of it as a Christian? For a useful, brief discussion of the arguments see https://bible.org/seriespage/lesson-39-who-wretched-man-romans-714-25-overview.

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