Josif Trifa: Former Priest of the Romanian Orthodox Church

Josif Trifa was born in 1888 in the village Certede, next to Kmpeni in the Western mountains.  He attended gymnasium in Bejus and then studied theology in Sibiu.  He returned to his home village as a teacher and later was consecrated as a priest.  In 1921 Metropolitan Balan invited him to Sibiu to become spiritual advisor to the Department of Theology.  In 1922 the Metropolitan of Sibiu decided to start a magazine on religious education in Romanian villages.  Priest Trifa was responsible for publishing it.  He called the magazine “Light of the Village”.  It was intended for common people and issued weekly.  The first issue came out on January 2, 1922.

Among other things, Trifa wrote in the first issue:

“On the basis of the new order in the country – and in our nation – we ought to behave in the fear of God and obedience to His Word.  To start at the beginning: faith and love of God – because without this beginning, nothing permanent or excellent can be accomplished…  Only one balm can give the world and our nation health and salvation to: that people and nations would turn to Jesus, His teachings, and His commandments of love.  Then peace will flow permanently among the nations.”

Recall that at that time, Transylvania had been united with the mother country for just three years.  Romanians in Transylvania possessed huge hopes for unification, but many of them were disappointed.  The process of improving the situation in the villages went very slowly.  Although nothing improved on the economic side, the situation in the moral and spiritual side was even worse.  Josif Trifa found it necessary to write articles in the magazine “Light to the Villages” about evil in Romanian society, especially the plight of the villages.

The poet Traian Dorz, disciple of the priest Trifa and leader of “The Lord’s Army” after his death, described the movement with the title: “History of One Sacrifice: a Testimony to the Start and the first 12 years of the Lord’s Army.”  This work was never published.  There are only two typed manuscripts from which we can draw information about Josif Trifa and the Lord’s Army.

Here is what Traian Dorz writes about the first years of Trifa’s activity in “Light to the Villages”:

“Instead of bland ‘committee’ articles which were soon completely withdrawn – from the pages of the magazine came forth his rebukes and denunciations of sin, politicians’ greed, judges’ partiality, injustice of laws, the decay of society, and the absence of the church.  While orphans were dying, invalids were begging, people were suffering, faith was dying, poverty was spreading, foreigners were enriching themselves, and the devil was laughing – the Church sat silent and waiting.”

The voice of “Light to the Villages” in the whole war against evil was not the only one to cry out and inform people.  But he was the only person who deeply believed that only spiritual rebirth could stop the destruction and bring salvation.  The voice that said only a strong and complete turning to Christ can save and renew.  Only faith and believing in Christ’s sacrifice on the cross as the sole way of salvation from death and condemnation could work.

While others offered all sorts of “solutions” and prescribed various “remedies” against the ailments of society, priest Josif insisted the only life-saving remedy was Christ.

After a year of writing for the magazine, Josif realized that he spoke in vain: no one responded to his call.  This man reached a point of crisis on New Year’s Eve.  This crisis gave birth to an initiative to invite people to fight against sin.  Out of this call sprang the movement “The Lord’s Army”.  Seeing the sin and downfall of the nation, Josif Trifa asked, “What have I done to help these unfortunate drunkards and revilers to understand their state of hopelessness and sin?  What have I done so that Christ draw near to them and they would draw near to Christ?  This is the only way for the salvation of an individual soul or for an entire nation.”

Trifa was very stricken and called upon the whole Romanian nation and all Christians to make a major decision:

“As we enter the New Year, let us come as Christians to commit to a mutual struggle against swearing, drunkenness…”

Writing with the same zeal, he published the Declaration to be signed by those who opted for such a lifestyle.  In the Easter 1923 issue, Trifa published the list of names of the first “soldiers” who wrote him that they agreed to sign the Declaration and abstain from swearing, drunkenness, and other sins.  He advised that it was not enough just to say “no” to some sins, but that progress needed to be made toward the gift and light of our Savior Jesus Christ from the New Testament.

That is how the movement “the Lord’s Army” got started.  There took place some conferences, meetings in the villages, and special groups of “soldiers” who gathered together to study the Bible and encourage one another.

The priest Josif Trifa as spiritual leader of the movement saw the need to define the basic principles of the movement.  Traian Dorz noted the three basic principles as: acceptance of Jesus Christ as personal savior, spiritual rebirth, and the Bible as the only source of Christian faith.

Josif understood from the beginning that the secret and power of victory only could and would stand in Christ, in the living sacrifice of the crucified Christ.  He stated, “All the work of our salvation, from the beginning I tell you, stood and stands only in the sacrifice of the crucified Jesus.”

The miracle of the revelation of Christ produces in our soul another miracle: the secret and divine work of spiritual rebirth.  The mystery of repentance is a work of the Holy Spirit.  It is the divine act that is necessary for every person to obey, the Holy Spirit and the Holy Word.  That mysterious work and change is produced by God’s Word in the life of one who believes along with God’s Spirit.  Our healing and salvation as individuals and as a nation will never amount to anything apart from the knowledge of and living in harmony with Holy Scripture.

Josif Trifa constantly insisted that people should center their attention on Jesus Christ:

“The foundation of our salvation is in the crucified Jesus.  All Scripture speaks of this (John 3:16; Acts 4:12).  If one seeks salvation outside of the Source, he is wasting his time and forfeits salvation…  Seeking salvation apart from Jesus Christ is akin to kneading bread without flour…  This is a major weakness of modern Christians: omitting Christ from the equation of their salvation…  The devil is very deceptive.  He leaves Christians all the rules, all the practices, all the forms.  He fights for only one thing: that he removes the flour from the bread, that he removes the honey from the comb, that he removes Jesus Christ from their salvation.

It is said that in no place does the devil sleep so peacefully than where people zealously adhere to all the rules and traditions, yet they lack the crucified and living Christ…  We constantly proclaim only the crucified Jesus, regardless of whatever opposition appears…  Because we know and believe that only in His Name and the power of His cross do we truly have salvation and life…”

“The Lord’s Army” rapidly developed into a movement among the masses.  In 1934, several accusations were made against this movement.  Among them, one priest wrote:  “The Lord’s Army in the beginning was good because it campaigned with propaganda against debauchery.  But ever since they preached the sermon about ‘The Ignorant Ones’ with regard to spiritual rebirth, the movement became dangerous and no longer deserves our support.’  (Cited from Traian Dorz, History of the Lord’s Army, 334.)

The priest making this accusation was very familiar with Orthodox theology.  He knew the Orthodox teaching that spiritual rebirth occurs through baptism.  Because little children are baptized, thus every Orthodox Christian who was baptized in infancy is considered to be spiritually reborn.

“The preaching on spiritual rebirth that occurs only when one comprehends the meaning of the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus and receiving Him as Savior thus denies the power of baptism to produce spiritual rebirth!  When someone preaches in the Orthodox Church that the act of spiritual rebirth occurs only later, when a person in faith turns to God, in reality they teach something that contradicts one very crucial Orthodox dogma.  But the priest Trifa, who has studies what the Holy Scriptures teach about spiritual rebirth and wants to be faithful to the Scriptures, had no other way out.  He preached a doctrine that was in contradiction with the dogma of the church to which he belonged.”

The main accusation against the priest Josif Trifa was his refusal to allow the hierarchy of the Orthodox Church to take over the leadership of the Lord’s Army.  Several years ago, the official Orthodox hierarchy attempted to shift power to the official church organs.  However, Josif realized that those who wanted to seize control of the Army with the goal of transforming the Lord’s Army from a movement of spiritual renewal into a type of cultural society.

To avert such a catastrophe, Josif Trifa abdicated his priestly role with the intent of remaining the leader of the Lord’s Army and editor of “Light to the Villages”.  However, the Metropolitan of Sibiu informed him that the moment he resigned the priesthood, he would forfeit control of the Army and the magazine.

The “heresy” of the priest Trifa sounded thus:

“In preaching about the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ, inviting people to accept Jesus as their personal Savior, and teaching personal contact between sinful people and Jesus Christ, the priest Josif Trifa denied one of the most central dogmas of the Orthodox Church.”

Metropolitan Nikolae Balan denied any possibility for repentant sinners to have any contact with the Savior in any manner apart from the mediation of the Church!

The previous testimonies revealed to us the experience of these priests: Dumitru Cornilescu, Tudor Popescu, and Josif Trifa.  Let us repeat the main themes of their activity:

First, the translation of the Bible into the modern Romanian language, without any deviation from the original text, was viewed as a “Protestant” action.

Then, when these people preached personal salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, they contradicted the Orthodox teaching that the Church is the organ that dispenses salvation.

When Tudor Popsecu turned to the Biblical doctrine that states Jesus is the sole mediator between man and God, the Orthodox Church accused him of denying the Orthodox dogma of the intercession of saints between man and God.

When Josif Trifa preached about spiritual rebirth as a result of accepting Jesus Christ with sincere faith, he was accused of denying the Orthodox dogma of spiritual rebirth through infant baptism.

Dumitru Cornilescu and Tudor Popescu joined Evangelical-Protestant church fellowships.  Many members of the Lord’s Army did the same.  This solution to which more Romanian Orthodox members have increasingly resorted has made them unite with Baptists, Pentecostals, and other groups.  These church fellowships today amount to more than half a million members.  More and more Romanians are joining these churches.